Els leads at Bay Hill; Monday finish looms

Ernie Els smiles during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Three hours of rain put a stop to the final round at Bay Hill.

It did little to cool off Ernie Els.

Even though Els will have a two-shot lead with four holes remaining when the Arnold Palmer Invitational resumes Monday, the Big Easy couldn’t help but think about how hard the task had become.

One minute he was five shots ahead and cruising toward his second straight victory on the PGA Tour. Then came a shot into the water, another shot into the sand, and Els was facing a restless night.

“Obviously, I’m not totally at ease with myself right now,” Els said. “I’m a little angry or disappointed or whatever you want to call it. There’s still work out there to be done, and I’ve got to get it done. I’ve basically got to go out there and play hard tomorrow morning, four holes as good as I can.”

Els was at 11-under par through 14 holes when thunderstorms halted the final round, and rain soaked Bay Hill over the next three hours. Kevin Na was at 9 under and on the front of the green on the 15th hole, facing an 80-foot birdie putt.

The final round is to resume at 10 a.m. in the first Monday finish at Bay Hill since 1982.

“I was playing well and Ernie looked like he was struggling,” Na said. “Probably good for Ernie that they called it so he can clear his head a little bit. For me, I need to make birdies to catch Ernie.”

Ben Curtis and Chris Couch, playing in the final group with Els were at 8 under. Couch still had a 15-foot par putt on the par-3 14th. Retief Goosen also was 8 under through 17 holes.

J.P. Hayes and D.J. Trahan each shot 70 and were finished at 6-under 282. Phil Mickelson, who started his week with a 58 during a casual round in the California desert, ended it with a 77.

There’s a reason Els was so angry despite his two-shot lead. He was five shots clear until hitting from the heavy sand of a bunker into the water on the 13th hole, leading to double bogey. He followed that with a tee shot into the left bunker that led to bogey on the 14th.

Even more annoying was the sound of a siren to suspend play, the sound of heavy rain on the roof, and the announcement that the course was too wet for any more golf Sunday evening.

“Not a very nice way to go into a bit of a break,” Els said. “I’ll be thinking about it all night. It won’t be a very peaceful night, I don’t think, but I’m going to come out tomorrow and get it done somehow.”

Els went two years without winning, and was poised to only wait two weeks this time. He ended the longest drought of his career at Doral with a four-shot victory, and is trying to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001 to win twice on the Florida swing.

He started the final round with a one-shot lead and quickly seized control with a 12-foot birdie putt on the fifth, then reached the fringe in two on the par-5 sixth for a simple birdie to build a three-shot lead.

The 40-year-old South African appeared to be bothered on the eighth hole when he was about to hit a difficult shot into the wind and over the water, only to back off when he heard Couch hit out of turn. Els then went into a bunker and made bogey, and he drove into the right rough on No. 9 and had to play short of the green.

Couch hit his approach into 4 feet, and it looked as though they would make the turn in a tie for the lead. Els, however, pitched in from 53 yards short of the green for an unlikely birdie that put him at 12 under and allowed him to keep his two-shot lead.

From the fairway bunker at No. 10, Els hit to 15 feet and made another birdie, and he was on his way. Then came his mistakes – the water short of the 13th green, a bunker left of the 14th green, and it was a game again.

“There’s no excuse for those bogeys or double bogeys I made,” Els said. “Just came at the wrong time, and now I’m in a big battle tomorrow morning depending on conditions. It could be a wild finish.”

Couch, whose only victory came in New Orleans in 2006, needs a victory to get into the Masters for the first time. The other top five players on the leaderboard already are set for Augusta National.

Only one player had managed to break 70 in the final round – D.A. Points, who had a 69 and was tied for 17th.

If there’s any good omen for Els, his only other victory at Bay Hill was in 1998 during a week of bad weather. He had to play 36 holes on Sunday and won by four shots.

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