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Sun 3 Feb 2008 01:25 AM

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Els leads over Woods in Desert Classic

South African surges to top of the leaderboard after three rounds of the Dubai tournament.

Tiger Woods hopes of a fifth consecutive tournament win nosedived here on Saturday when Ernie Els swept by him to take the lead after three rounds of the Dubai Desert Classic.

Woods ended his run of 21 straight sub-par rounds dating back five months with a lacklustre one-over 73.

Els, looking for a record fourth win in Dubai, equalled the best round of the tournament to date with a seven-under 65 sparked by an eagle-three at the 10th.

The big South African, who lost to Woods in a playoff here two years ago had started the day trailing the American by four strokes, By the end of it he led him by four and was in pole position for Sunday's climax.

"All in all it was a round I really needed," said Els who was 11-under for the tournament.

"I probably needed two 64s to have half a chance in the tournament, and as it turned out, a 65 today and probably I need a low one tomorrow.

"I can't see Henrik (Stenson) with Tiger and the other guys not shooting low."

Woods said he had left himself with too much to do on the greens by hitting poor approach shots.

"Consequently I was lag-putting a lot. Never really gave myself a lot of looks at birdies."

It was far from being a two-horse race, however, as defending champion Henrik Stenson, who edged Els and Woods last year, stayed firmly in the hunt with a 68 which left him just one stroke off the lead and playing with Els in the final pairing on Sunday.

"I was two behind Ernie last year and now I'm one behind. I don't know if that's a good omen or not," said the Swede who finished second at both Abu Dhabi and Doha in the two lead-up events to Dubai.

In-form Englishman Lee Westwood (68) was tied for third with Ulsterman Graeme McDowell (69) a furter two strokes back, while Woods closing bogey dropped him into a share of fourth place at seven-under with six others including Sergio Garcia (70).

Colin Montgomerie's hopes of getting back inside the top 50 in time to qualify for The Masters were dealt a blow meanwhile when he could only manage a 73 leaving him well down the field.

Els was out in two-under 33, and surged to the top of the leaderboard after whacking a five-wood from 266 yards to a couple of feet at the 10th.

He followed that eagle with birdies at 11, 13 and 17 confirming that he has back to his best after a six-week lay off back home in South Africa.

"This is my very first event of the year," he said. "Middle of December - I've had a good five weeks off. It's early enough in the year where I'm really fresh from a nice holiday in South Africa."

Woods missed a five-footer for par at the first after backing off his putt and then struggled manfully against a wayward driver that saw him make several visits off the fairways and onto the desert sands.

His efforts at salvaging a birdie at the par-five 18th, as he did on Friday, came to grief as he sent his second into the water. From there he was unable to save his par.

"I don't know what the conditions are going to be tomorrow but I'm going to have to play better than I did the last two days - that's for sure," he said.

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