Baird two ahead of Els and Casey at CordeValle

San Martin (California): American journeyman Briny Baird covered his final seven holes in four under par to break two strokes clear of a tightly bunched leaderboard in Saturday`s third round of the Open.

Bidding for his first PGA Tour title in his 348th start on the U.S. circuit, the 39-year-old fired a superb seven-under 64 on a glorious afternoon of sunshine in the Santa Clara valley.

Baird eagled the driveable par-four 17th, rolling in a 15-foot putt, before shrugging off a bogey at the last, where his tee shot ended up in a hazard, to post a 13-under total of 200.

That left him two ahead of three-times major winner Ernie Els, who carded a 67, and British world number 20 Paul Casey, who returned a 68 at CordeValle Golf Club.

Tiger Woods, who teed off in the first group from the 10th, briefly closed to within three strokes of the lead before losing momentum on the way to a 68, in a tie for 38th a distant nine strokes off the pace.

"It`s getting better," Woods, who is playing his first PGA Tour event in seven weeks, told reporters after mixing five birdies with two bogeys. "I`m improving day by day.

"Obviously tomorrow I need to improve a lot, make the putts and post a really low one."

With conditions near perfect for scoring on a beautiful autumn day at CordeValle, the scoreboard fluctuated wildly as the players vied for supremacy in the PGA Tour`s Fall series event.

Els briefly forged two strokes clear at 11-under after sinking a five-footer to eagle the par-five ninth but he immediately slipped back with a three-putt bogey at the 10th.

Five players held a share of the lead at 10-under late on the back nine -- Els, Baird, Bryce Molder, Charlie Wi and Adam Hadwin -- before Baird took control with birdies at 14 and 15.

"I felt very surprisingly in control of my golf game," Baird said after covering the back nine in four-under 32. "I felt very good today.

"I haven`t played well the last couple of years, so I`m definitely a little out of my element up near the lead of a golf tournament."

Asked how he would handle the pressure of trying to win his first PGA Tour title in Sunday`s final round, Baird replied: "If I can feel tomorrow like I did today, I`m probably going to be a very, very hard guy to beat."

Casey, the highest-ranked player in this week`s field, held a one-shot lead after the fog-delayed second round was completed earlier on Saturday.

Casey, the highest-ranked player in this week`s field, held a one-shot lead after the fog-delayed second round was completed earlier on Saturday.

However, he failed to build on that advantage as he struggled on the greens on the way to a three-birdie 68.

"I felt a little bit frustrated," said the Englishman, who is not yet back to full fitness after being hampered by a sore right toe since May. "I wasn`t swinging the club that freely on the front nine, but still gave myself a lot of chances.

"The back nine was a little better with the ball striking, but the one thing that got me today was the putter. I`m just not striking the ball well," added Casey, whose only PGA Tour victory came at the 2009 Houston Open.

While Els was disappointed to cover the back nine in level par after squandering a few birdie opportunities, he was delighted to be in contention for a first PGA Tour win this season.

"This is what I`ve been working towards," said the 41-year-old South African, who has struggled with his putting in recent years and is using a belly putter this week.

"I`m playing well, swinging nicely. I`ve got a chance for tomorrow. I haven`t been in this position all year, but I don`t think your memory disappears after 20 years of being out here."

Bureau Report

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