NEWPORT BEACH – On the day after a pair of relative unknowns shared the spotlight during the opening round of the Hoag Classic, World Golf Hall of Famer Ernie Els did Saturday at Newport Beach Country Club what the huge galleries expected to see from a four-time major winner playing his first year on PGA Tour Champions.
Els shot the low round of the day, a 7-under 64, to surge into the lead, putting himself in position to win his first title in just his third start on the 50-and-over tour.
“I’ve won some tournaments before, but I can’t be thinking of that tomorrow,” said Els, a 19-time PGA Tour winner (including two U.S. Opens and two British Opens) with 47 other international titles. “I’ve got to really keep the foot on the pedal. There’s a bunch of guys bunched (near the top of the leaderboard), so it’s going to be quite a shootout tomorrow.”
Going into Sunday’s final round, Els is at 12-under-par, one shot ahead of defending Schwab Cup champion Scott McCarron (63-68) and first-round leader David Morland IV, a Tuesday qualifier who followed his 10-under 61 on Friday with a 1-under 70.
There are 10 players within three shots of the lead, including UCLA alumnus Ken Tanigawa and Ken Duke (the other unexpected Friday headliner), both at 10-under; and Hall of Famer Fred Couples, a two-time Hoag champion and one of three players at 9-under.
Because he has no status on PGA Tour Champions, Morland has more at stake in the final round than the other contenders. A victory would give him full-time tour status through 2021 and make him the first open qualifier to win a Champions title since Doug Barron in 2019.
“If you asked me at the beginning of the week if I was a shot out of the lead with a chance to win, I would be happy,” said Morland, who currently has full status on the European senior tour by virtue of a second-place finish at that Q-School this winter.
After a 5-under 66 in the first round left Els five shots behind Morland and three behind Duke, “The Big Easy” accelerated into contention with five birdies over the first seven holes on Saturday.
An eagle on the par-5 15th hole, his second in as many days, moved him into a tie with Morland, and Els seized the lead with a birdie on the par-3 17th. Another birdie on the par-5 18th temporarily gave him a two-shot lead, but McCarron’s torrid finish – three birdies in the last four holes – trimmed Els’ lead to one shot.
“Yeah, it was a good finish,” said McCarron, another UCLA alumnus who had chances to win the Hoag Classic the past two years but fell short on the final day. “I just tried to stay patient all day. It was very difficult (with swirling and gusting winds all day), the hole locations were tough, and I hit a lot of good putts that just weren’t going in. But we’re in position (to win.)”
Couples, a Newport Beach resident who won the Hoag in 2010 and 2014, is also in position to become the first three-time winner of the tournament. If he had taken advantage of the two par-5s on the back nine Saturday, as he usually does – he settled for par on both — he also would be one shot out of the lead.
“If I had gotten one of them, that would have been a dream round,” said Couples, who birdied the first three holes and finished with a 5-under 66. “I’ve just got to play and have a really, really hot round.”
Win or lose, Couples is happy that Els decided to play in Newport Beach, which he calls one of his favorite tournaments.
“I tell everyone like Ernie, when you get on tour, you don’t want to miss Newport, because they have great crowds and it’s a fun golf course,” Couples said.
So far, Els likes the golf course and the tournament, too, though he has been struggling at times on short putts on the poa annua greens, which can get bumpy as they grow unevenly in the afternoon. He missed short par putts on No. 12 and No. 14 on Saturday, which kept him from going even lower.
“It definitely could have been (even lower), but I’ve got to be satisfied with what’s going on,” Els said. “The short putts can be tricky, especially in the afternoon. I’m not so used to poa annua. But everybody struggles with a 4- or 5-footer . . . and when the ball’s (bouncing) around a little bit, it makes it a little bit more tough. But it is what it is. The golf course is in great shape, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
“I’m still very much a rookie out here (on PGA Tour Champions), so I just want to try and play a really solid round and see what happens.”
NOTES: Hale Irwin, 74, the all-time leader with 45 Champions titles, shot a 1-over 72 on Saturday to better his age for the 43rd time, the all-time tour record . . . Jay Haas, 66, a two-time Hoag Champion, just missed shooting his age by carding 67-67 in both rounds and is tie for ninth . . . Defending champion Kirk Triplett shot a 6-under 65 and is tied for 12th . . . Els’ last victory in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event was the 2012 British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s.
To viewthe original article on OCRegister.com click here.