Baddeley shows he's ready, leads Els by two

Updated: January 19, 2003, 12:18 AM ET
Associated Press

HONOLULU -- Aaron Baddeley's age and PGA Tour experience are a little misleading. The 21-year-old Aussie looked like a prime-time player Saturday in the Sony Open, and not many were surprised.

Ernie Els
Ernie Els is trying to win the first two tournaments on the 2003 PGA Tour schedule.

Especially not the man chasing him -- Ernie Els.

''Obviously, he's a guy for big occasions,'' Els said. ''He's definitely not scared. This is the big leagues, now, but he's a big-league player.''

Baddeley showed that on a difficult, windy afternoon at Waialae Country Club, where he blitzed the field on the front nine to build a five-stroke lead, then hung on with pars as the Big Easy was making a run at him.

Baddeley, who has played his last 26 holes at par or better, finished with a 5-under 65 to take a two-stroke lead over Els.

Els got his putter going on the back nine and made up four strokes in his round of 66, setting the stage for a compelling final round.

Els is coming off an eight-stroke victory last week at Kapalua, where he led by two going into the last round and finished a record 31-under par. He is trying to become the first player since Steve Jones in 1989 to win the first two events of the PGA Tour season.

Blocking the path is Baddeley, who is playing for the first time as a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour and appears eager to get his first victory.

''I think it's going to be exciting,'' Baddeley said. ''I'm leading in my first PGA Tour tournament and playing the second-best player in the world. I'm just going to go out there and enjoy the day.''

Baddeley was at 15-under 195.

Robert Gamez, who hasn't won since his rookie season 12 years ago, had a 65 and joined Chris DiMarco (69) and Briny Baird (67) at 10-under 200.

Experience seems to favor Els, winner of two U.S. Opens, a British Open and the best player in golf as long as Tiger Woods is recovering from knee surgery.

Not so fast.

Baddeley was 18 when he won the 1999 Australian Open as an amateur, the youngest champion in the history of golf's third-oldest professional championship. He won it the next year as a pro, and later won the Holden International in Australia.

His victims: Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Robert Allenby and Sergio Garcia.

''He's got a lot of talent,'' Els said. ''He's very much going to be a star of the future. Tiger was 20, 21 when he started beating the hell out of us.''

Baddeley certainly didn't panic Saturday in more tough Kona winds at Waialae Country Club.

Tied with Retief Goosen to start the third round, Baddeley put eight strokes between him and the former U.S. Open champion on the front nine. He capped it off by holing a 45-foot eagle putt that curled in the back of the cup.

That gave him a five-stroke lead over the rest of the field, and he appeared to be poised for a runaway.

Instead, Baddeley started missing greens ever so slightly, taking himself out of birdie opportunities. He finished with nine pars, but some of them were just as brilliant as his birdies and eagle.

His lead down to two, Baddeley went from the trees into a bunker on one hole, a perilous shot because he had only about 12 feet of green, and the slope and grain ran away from him. It came out perfectly, and Baddeley holed an 8-footer for par.

Els finally found his putting touch and birdied six of his final 10 holes, most of them from the 10- to 18-foot range.

''At least I've got a chance,'' Els said. ''And I'm playing in the final group, which helps a little bit.''

But even Els knows it won't be easy.

Baddeley showed his promise as a teenager, and said not long after first learning the game from his grandmother that he wanted to reach the PGA Tour by the time he was 21.

He managed that by finishing 10th last year on the Tour money list, and he appears ready to take the next step.

''I'll be coming out aggressive, firing at the pins,'' he said. ''I want to get further in front. My mind-set is no different whether I'm two ahead or two behind.''

This won't be a match-play situation like it was last week, when Els was two ahead of K.J. Choi and seven clear of everyone else.

DiMarco and the others at 200 are capable of making a run, while Shigeki Maruyama had a 69 and was another stroke back.

Goosen faltered quickly, with a triple bogey on the opening hole and a sloppy bogey on the third to disappear from contention. He finished with a 72 and was seven strokes behind.

Game notes
There's already evidence that golfers are paying attention to the new pace-of-play penalties. PGA Tour rules officials could not remember the last time that the first and second rounds were completed before 6 p.m. ... Eleven of the 23 rookies made the cut in the first full-field event of the year.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press