MIAMI -- An eight-stroke lead suddenly became Ernie Els' worst nightmare.
It was bad enough that the Big Easy was having a difficult time in the Genuity Championship on Sunday. Worse yet, Els had to watch
Tiger Woods in the group ahead put on a dazzling display of big drives and crucial putts, working the gallery into a frenzy.
"He has wiped out leads like that before," Els said. "When he gets on a roll, it's hard sometimes for him to hit a bad shot. It's not a very comfortable feeling."
At least this one had a happy ending.
A duel that Els never wanted turned into a victory he desperately needed on the Blue Monster at Doral when he withstood relentless pressure to win for the first time in 18 months on the PGA Tour.
"I'm very happy," said Els, who closed with an even-par 72 for a two-stroke victory over Woods. "A half-hour ago, I was still very concerned about winning this tournament."
The comeback was so swift and shocking that Woods had a 40-foot eagle putt for a share of the lead on the 12th hole. He settled for
birdie, and he finally ran out of magic. He never made another birdie, although he had three chances inside 15 feet.
"I made him work for it," Woods said.
Woods closed with a 66, playing the final 42 holes in blustery conditions without a bogey.
Els, who finished at 271 and earned $846,000, won for the first time on the PGA Tour since the International in 2000.
More importantly he was finally staring down Woods, even though it was an occasion he could have done without. Els has finished
runner-up to Woods six times, three more times than any other player.
There have been dramatic battles, such as Kapalua two years ago when they matched eagles on the 18th hole to get into a playoff, which Woods won with a 40-foot birdie putt. There have been blowouts, too, such as Woods winning the U.S. Open by 15 shots and the British Open by eight shots during his record-setting year in 2000.
But the one duel that came to mind Sunday was when Woods made up an eight-stroke deficit in the final round and beat Els in a playoff at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand four years ago.
"This would have been a difficult one to swallow," Els said.
He didn't buckle this time. Els made a terrific par save from 50 feet off the 14th green, and his swing held up under the pressure of the final four holes, all of them two-putt pars.
"I felt like I was watching him all day, and that's difficult when he's got momentum and I'm trying to find momentum," Els said. "I'm happy I pulled this one off."
Els was trying to avoid a dubious record on the PGA Tour. No one had ever led by eight strokes going into the final round without winning.
Woods put the pressure on from the start with three straight birdies, and when Els had a 4-foot par putt on No. 2 horseshoe around the cup.
"I just felt like I was on my back foot from then on," Els said.
Woods said his goal was to cut the eight-stroke lead in half at the turn, and he went one better with a 12-foot birdie on No. 9 that got him within three strokes.
"I got there with a chance, and that's all you can do," Woods said.
If there was any question about the pressure Els felt, it was answered when he putted out for par on No. 9 and saw a backup on the 10th tee. Els elected to sit on his bag just off the ninth green rather than wait with Woods on the tee box.
"It was getting tight," Els said. "I don't know what I would have said to him. I don't know if I would have punched him or kicked him in the knees. We were very competitive. He's a good friend of mine, but I can say hello to him at some other time."
The 20-minute delay didn't bother Woods. He birdied two of the next three holes to pull to within one stroke. It also did wonders for
Els, allowing him to regroup.
The turning point was his 12-foot birdie putt on the par-5 12th, right after Woods two-putted for birdie to reduce the eight-stroke margin to a single shot, one that can be lost anywhere at any time on the Blue Monster.
"That was probably the winning putt for me," Els said. "I felt like a different player after that. I felt a lot more in control."
Peter Lonard had a 70 and finished at 277.
Woods came charging out of the gates with a powerful drive that covered 385 yards when it finally stopped rolling. That left Woods a sand wedge for his second shot into the 529-yard opening hole. He two-putted for birdie, but it set the tone for his day.
With the wind behind him again, he drove into a greenside bunker on the 376-yard second hole. He hit a high bunker shot from 100 feet away across the green, the ball landing 4 feet from the cup for another birdie. He followed with an approach into 2 feet for his third straight birdie, and the game was on.
"After that, I knew I was in for a long, tough day," Els said. "When he gets off to a start like that, he can shoot really low. But I hung in there."
Els won earlier this year in Australia, but winning on the PGA Tour is what matters the most. And he relishes a chance to beat the best, which is what he got from Woods.
Els left immediately for a long flight to the United Arab Emirates, where he will play in the Dubai Desert Classic.
"When I get on the plane tonight, after a couple of beers when I've relaxed a bit, I will think back on this and maybe look at it as a blessing in disguise," he said. "I did some good things coming down the last five holes."