Choi Leads Els by 1 Shot at Chrysler

Saturday, October 28th 2006, 7:42 am
By: News On 6

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) _ Ernie Els appears to be hitting his stride at just the right time. His iron play was superior on Friday in the Chrysler Championship, leading him to a 5-under 66 that left him only one shot behind K.J. Choi going into the weekend. And at No. 30 on the PGA Tour money list, his solid play at Innisbrook appears to have made him a safe bet to hold down his spot and get into the Tour Championship next week.

Even better news? Tiger Woods won't be playing at East Lake.

``Tiger's not playing?'' Els said, the surprise evident on his face. He wondered aloud if Woods was waiting until the start of next year at Kapalua before trying to build on a six-tournament winning streak, then said Woods and Phil Mickelson, who also is skipping the Tour Championship, have done enough this year.

Along with his three majors and graceful swing, Els has developed a reputation for being Woods' punching bag, having been runner-up to him seven times. But that doesn't bother Els, and he has more important things on his mind.

The Big Easy has not won anywhere in the world this year, and time is running out.

But he feels as though his game is on the rise, which he can trace to the British Open. Els had knee surgery a year ago, and the recovery has been slow. There are times when it hurt him every day he played, but since July, the aches have been minimal.

``When you stop thinking about the knee, you can really start looking forward to improving your swing, and your mechanics, and everything else,'' Els said. ``It's hard to do that when you've got a screwy knee. Ever since then, and really after the World Championship event (he finished fifth in London), I got some new stuff I can work on. I feel clearer about it.''

That much was evident on No. 10, his opening hole of the second round.

This wasn't a shot that will make a highlight reel, but it was pure. Into a slight breeze to a back pin, from 161 yards, Els fired a 7-iron without fear and watched it settle 3 feet from the hole for an opening birdie. More solid shots followed, such as his tee shot to 5 feet and just over the water on the par-3 13th (a par when he missed the putt), and a 5-iron to 15 feet on the 15th.

There were a few mistakes along the way, but not enough to douse his spirits.

Choi is still the man to catch, riding a 66 to a one-shot lead over Els, Jonathan Byrd (67) and Brian Gay (71). Choi won at Innisbrook in 2002, and found himself in control of his swing, which never hurts.

The Chrysler Championship is the final full-field event of the year on the PGA Tour, and there are battles all over the Copperhead course as players are trying to get into the top 30 on the money list to get into the Tour Championship, the top 40 to secure Masters invitations, or the top 125 to keep their cards.

As usual, the drama was toward the bottom of the leaderboard, because the only way to make money is to make the cut.

Brian Bateman was No. 126, and getting a tee time on the weekend might have been all he needed to get inside the top 125. It was a struggle most of the day, but he finished strong with an approach into 2 feet on his final hole to reach 3 over.

Then he waited _ in vain, as it turned out.

Stuart Appleby made a 15-foot birdie on his ninth and final hole, and not enough players on the bubble made bogey in the blustery conditions late in the day. Seventy players made the cut at 2-over 144, meaning Bateman will have to head back to Q-school.

Still alive were Duffy Waldorf (No. 130), despite a 76 that put him at 143; and Paul Goydos, a long shot to keep his card. He birdied the 18th for his second straight 68, leaving him in fifth place and only two shots out of the lead.

Goydos needs to finish at least alone in fourth place or better to have a chance at earning his card for 2007.

The thrills belonged to Paul Azinger, who two years ago bogeyed the last two holes to miss the cut by one shot, eventually costing him his card. He was at No. 122 coming into the Chrysler Championship, and had to scramble at the end. But he holed a 15-foot par putt on the 17th, and an 8-foot par putt on the 18th to make the cut by one shot.

With one guy ahead of him (Matthias Gronberg) and five guys behind him on the money list who either missed the cut or did not play, Azinger is virtually a lock to keep his card and be eligible for the FedExCup competition next year.

``Sweet,'' he said, raising a plastic cup of iced tea.

Choi and Els appear to be the ones to chase going into the weekend. Choi was at 10 under until taking a double bogey on the par-3 eighth when his 5-wood _ a new club in the bag _ sailed beyond the green. That brought him down to 8-under 134.

Els, first wanting to secure his spot in the Tour Championship, always had his mind on winning. He loves to start the season at the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship, and there's only one way to get there.

``I'm hitting it solidly, and I'm putting quite nicely,'' Els said. ``I'm looking forward to this weekend. Like I said, I would love to get into Hawaii. I figure I have two chances at it.''