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Eagle allows Singh to keep lead again

Vijay Singh heard cheers at every corner Saturday in the Mercedes Championships, and all he could muster were mostly pars. He finally answered with one shot that salvaged the day.

Singh hit a 248-yard approach to 10 feet on the par-5 15th for eagle, allowing him to shoot 4-under 69 and hold off Jonathan Kaye and Ernie Els heading into the final round of the season opener.

"It came out absolutely perfect," Singh said. "I couldn't hit it any better."

He was 19-under 200, in good shape to become the first wire-to-wire winner of the winners-only event since it moved to Kapalua in 1999.

Kaye birdied six of his final eight for 66 and was at 201. Els finally got out of a funk from a bad bogey at No. 9 to shoot 68, leaving him two back.

Still, it all comes down to Singh.

Coming off a nine-win season, the 41-year-old Fijian can make an early statement about his No. 1 ranking with a victory today in what is expected to be wet, windy weather. Singh has won the past 11 times when he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, dating to the 2001 MCI Classic.

"He's on a roll, like probably only two or three guys in history have ever been on," said Stewart Cink, who shot 67 and was three behind. "He's going to be tough to catch. I don't even know what he is (under par) right now, but I'm sure we can wait five minutes and it will be one better."

Not quite.

Singh had 15 pars _ his other two holes were a simple up-and-down birdie on No. 9 and a wedge to 2 feet on No. 6 _ and realized he wasted a good chance to expand his lead.

"It's a disappointing 4 under, but I'll take it," Singh said. "I'm still in the lead."

Tiger Woods threw three shots away late in his round _ a 2-iron into waist-high weeds on No. 15 that he never found, and a driver off No. 17 that went 370 yards, through the fairway, the rough and into the hazard.

He wound up with 69 and was five behind.

Defending champion Stuart Appleby, who opened with 74, got into the hunt with rounds of 64-66 and was four shots behind with Mike Weir (71).

It was shaping up to a dynamic conclusion along the rugged coast of Maui, and an intriguing start to the year.

Six players were within five shots of Singh on a course where, as the third round proved, anyone can get it going and one hole can change things.

Els wasn't daunted seeing Singh atop the leaderboard through two rounds, and he showed why. He started with a couple of 20-foot birdie putts, then stuffed a wedge inside 4 feet on the third for his third straight birdie to tie Singh.

When the Big Easy two-putted for birdie on the par-5 fifth _ with Singh making nothing but pars behind him _ Els had the lead.

But all that work came undone on one hole.

He pulled his approach into an awkward lie in the bunker on the par-5 ninth and took two shots to get out, making bogey on one of the easiest holes at Kapalua. Singh came through with a chip to 4 feet for birdie to restore his lead.

NEW YEAR'S INVITATIONAL: Adam Scrimenti distanced himself from the field after shooting 4-under 68 at St. Petersburg Country Club for a three-day total of 14-under 202. Scrimenti, who attends Johnson and Wales University in Miami, has a five-shot lead over Dalton Melnyk. Luke List, Jeff Overton and John Holmes, last year's runnerup, are six shots back.

Doug Root continues to lead the senior division after 1-over 73 (219). Don Lucas and Mike Walters are three shots behind.

Today's final round begins with a 10 a.m. shotgun start.

_ RODNEY PAGE, Times staff writer