BETHESDA (AFP) - Ernie Els, a four-time Major winner trying to end a three-year title drought, fired a six-under 65 and leaped into second place after Saturday's third round of the PGA National.
The 46-year-old South African golfer eagled the 12th hole at Congressional Country Club, holing his second shot on the fly from 157 yards in the fairway with a 9-iron, and ran off three birdies in a row starting at the par-five sixth in the day's low round on the course where he won the 1997 US Open.
Els finished on 13-under 200 after 54 holes, two strokes behind local favourite leader Billy Hurley, a 607th-ranked local product who fired a bogey-free 67 in search of his first PGA crown.
Els achieved his first bogey-free round in 115 course tours in PGA events.
"I enjoyed it," he said. "I'm not the straightest guy but I kept it in play for the most part. The putter was hot for me most of the round. I missed two short ones and No.s 15 and 16, but overall solid golf."
It was a far cry from the epic Masters meltdown Els had in April, taking a quintuple bogey-nine on the first hole at Augusta National, six-putting in his first round the worst-ever score on the opening Masters hole.
"When you play this game long enough, a lot of things will happen to you," Els said. "It has been kind of a reset since then and I'm enjoying myself."
Spaniard Jon Rahm, a 21-year-old playing in his first professional event after taking low amateur honours at last week's US Open, was third on 201 with Americans Bill Haas and Webb Simpson sharing fourth on 203 and 53-year-old Fijian Vijay Singh sharing sixth on 205 with US rookie Harold Varner.
Els, ranked 296th, has not won since the European Tour's 2013 BMW International, has not won a US PGA-sanctioned event since the 2012 British Open and has not won a US tournament since 2010 at Bay Hill.
He is seeking a 20th USPGA Tour title, which would bring life membership on the USPGA Tour.
After sandwiching three-foot birdie putts at the sixth and eighth around an 18-footer at the seventh and making his stunning eagle at No. 12, Els curled in a 23-foot birdie putt at the 14th to grab second.
He missed a five-foot birdie putt at No. 15 and lipped out a three-foot birdie putt at the par-five 16th. He otherwise might have shared the lead.
Hurley, who spent five years in the US Navy before reaching the tour, has not finished in the top 30 in a strokeplay event for more than a year but looks solid this week.
He put his approach to two feet at the first to set up a birdie, hit an eight-footer to birdie the sixth and one half as long to birdie the ninth, then closed the back side with a 14-foot birdie putt at No. 14 and eight pars.
Rahm endured a roller coaster round with five birdies and four bogeys after playing his first 27 pro holes without a bogey.
Not since Russell Henley at the 2013 Sony Open in Hawaii has a player won his PGA pro debut.
Singh, ranked 210th, is trying to become the PGA's oldest winner and snap an eight-year win drought. The current age mark was set by Sam Snead, who was 52 years old when he won the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open.
Singh, a three-time Major champion, has not won on the tour since the 2008 Deutsche Bank Championship. The World Golf Hall of Famer's share of sixth last February at the Honda Classic was his lone top-25 showing in the past year.
Four spots available in next month's British Open would not go to Hurley, Rahm, Varner and Singh.