Joining them at 7-under 137 was Els, who had a 69 and was as surprised as anyone to be there.
Phil Mickelson, who hit two balls into the water from the tee and one ball into the hole from the fairway, was one shot behind.
Els could easily have spent Friday afternoon grinding to make the cut except for the way he survived a nasty patch on the front nine, when the tournament could have gotten away from him.
"I don't know if it was the break or my mental strength at the moment. I'm not sure," Els said. "But you know, I got through that little patch and started building again."
He opened with a bogey from the bunker, which is no disgrace. He hit a bad tee shot to the left on the par-5 fourth hole, making such a mess that he had to struggle for par. Then came a three-putt bogey on No. 5 from only about 35 feet.
"That really got me angry," Els said. "You don't want to be in that frame of mind standing on the sixth tee."
The par-5 sixth wraps around a lake, and with the wind in his face, Els hit a solid shot that was slightly pulled. It took a few hops and disappeared over the edge toward the water, leading to what surely would be a bogey, maybe worse.
That's when fate intervened.
Els found the ball a few feet away from a shelf, sitting in an inch of water. He removed his shoes, and had a good enough lie that he could play out to the fairway. From there, he hit 4-iron short of the green and saved par.
"If that ball was another yard left, it would have been into the deep end," Els said. "That was big."
Equally big was saving par from a plugged lie in the bunker on No. 7. He made par on those two holes to stay at 2 under, when he easily could have been even par or worse, right around the cut line.
And just look at him now.
"I was a yard away from probably not being in the tournament anymore, because that would have been a sure double bogey," he said. "I would have gone back to even par for the tournament, and it was a battle for making the cut and trying to get yourself in red figures."
From there, he ran off four birdies on the next five holes - the exception was a putt he missed from just over 10 feet
- and he worked his way to the top when a 5-iron into about 3 feet for birdie on the 17th.