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Ellis leads pack by 3 going into Hawaii Pearl Open final round

By Ann Miller


John Ellis' history at the Hawaii Pearl Open covers four years. It has been exhilarating when it has not been agonizing, with top-six finishes in his first three starts.

A few rare tweaks, such as a rain-shortened tournament and shooting 8 under par yesterday, might help him finally nail down a title today.

A day after a deluge erased the opening round, Ellis took a remarkably playable Pearl Country Club course apart. He drained four putts outside 15 feet in the midst of a bogey-free 64 that was 6 inches from including an ace at the 13th hole.

"I made a pretty long one on 18 to go 5 under," said Ellis, who started on the back nine. "Then, No. 1 I didn't hit a great chip and holed another 35-footer and I was thinking it's going to be one of those days. It was one of those days."

Ellis, a Californian who was Canadian tour player of the year in 2008, takes a three-shot lead into today's final round. Canadian Nick Taylor and Tony Finau, who represents Turtle Bay, are tied for second.

Taylor won last year's Ben Hogan Award — given to the top collegiate golfer — in his senior season at the University of Washington, then turned pro in October. Finau turned pro the day he graduated from high school in Utah and earned $100,000 in his debut at the 2007 "Ultimate Game" in Las Vegas.

Defending champion Yakinori Tani and Young Nam are four back at 68. Tani, who plays on the Japan pro tour, celebrated his first wedding anniversary with five birdies, a chip-in eagle and a double bogey he described only as "third shot — shank." Nam grew up in California and now plays the Asian and Korean tours. His round was much less adventurous; he missed just one green in regulation.

Han Lee, 19th on the Japan tour's Order of Merit last year, shares sixth with Nick Mason, two-time Pearl champ Kiyoshi Murota and Casey Nakama at 69.

Finau and Nakama, more known recently for his work with junior golfers, had the only sub-70 rounds in the afternoon.

Mason, second to Tani last year, was one of 64 golfers who finished their round Friday. The Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo alum was leading after shooting 66, but that round was washed into the ocean with all the rainwater that resulted from torrential downpours. Play was suspended twice and ultimately Friday's round was canceled because 112 golfers could not finish. Some 30 never teed off.

The $80,000 tournament, which attracts more than half its players from Japan, Korea, Canada and the mainland, was reduced to 36 holes. The cut was modified to 90 and ties, after yesterday's round.

The day started at 4 a.m. for the grounds crew and a few volunteers, who repaired and prepared every bunker using floodlights, generators, rakes and shovels. A day filled with 5 1/2 -hour rounds ended in the dark at 6:48 p.m., with one group still on the course.

That group will finish its last two holes at 7:10 a.m. and the cut will be made. If three of the four shoot 75 or better the cut will come at 75. If not, it will come at 76. The final round begins at 8 a.m.

Hawaii pro Ayaka Kaneko had the best round of the seven women at 77. Hawaii's Matt Ma is low amateur at 70.

The 33rd Pearl Open has already been an adventure, but Ellis was prepared. He knows as well as anyone that golf is full of curveballs.

Ellis, 31, played for the University of Oregon before turning pro. After finishing fourth here in his first try (2008), he followed with a fifth and sixth, taking a share of the lead into the final round last year. In between, he won three times in Canada and played mini-tour, Nationwide and PGA Tour events — "wherever they take me." He has never advanced past Q-School's second stage.

Last year he earned a slot in the PGA Tour's Open and tied for 24th despite a pair of double bogeys. Those hiccups are uncommon in his game. His worst score in six Canadian starts last year was 72. But when he falters, putting is often the cause. Coupled with yesterday's difficult pin placements, that made his 64 more surprising.

"I've been playing some good golf and been beat up by not getting to the PGA Tour or even Nationwide Tour," Ellis said. "Q-School kind of beats me up. So what do you do? Keep working and hopefully someday it will come."

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