Red-hot Els claims his third championship of '03

Originally Published: February 2, 2003
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The third victory of Ernie Els' terrific season was the most dramatic.

Wonderful Winter for Els
Since December, Ernie Els has played in five events, winning four of them and finishing second in one.
Event Finish Score
Heineken 1st 70-72-66-65--273 (-15)
Singapore 2nd 69-67-70-73--279 (-9)
Sony Open 1st 66-65-66-67--264 (-16)
Mercedes 1st 64-65-65-67--261 (-31)
*-Nedbank 1st 70-65-69-63--267 (-21)
*-The Nedbank Challenge was not an official event, although Els did pocket $2 million for winning it.

Els rallied for a 10-stroke deficit in the final two rounds to successfully defend his Heineken Classic title Sunday, posting a one-stroke victory over Nick Faldo and Peter Lonard.

Els secured his 10th worldwide victory in 13 months when Lonard missed a 9-foot par putt on the difficult final hole at Royal Melbourne.

''This one is good ... sweet,'' Els said. ''I haven't come from behind for quite some time. I really stuck to my guns, and it worked out. I made some good saves coming home. I was a little tired, but I seemed to have got some energy the last few days.''

The British Open champion finished last year with a $2 million win in the Nedbank Challenge in his native South Africa. He then opened this season with consecutive PGA Tour victories in Hawaii and was second last week in the Singapore Masters.

''It started at the World Match Play in October,'' Els said. ''I shot 60. That was quite nice. Then I kept it going.''

Els overpowered the winners-only field at the Mercedes Championships for an eight-stroke victory and a record 31 under par. Then he beat Aaron Baddeley in a playoff at the Sony Open to become the first player since Steve Jones in 1989 to win the PGA Tour's first two tournaments of the year, and the first to win both Hawaii events in the same season.

Els' success this season has come while Tiger Woods recovers from knee surgery.

Last season, Woods became the first player in 30 years to win the first two majors and wound up with six victories worldwide. Els already is halfway there.

The South African isn't concerned about facing the world's top player head-on.

''It will come to a head sooner or later, and you guys are probably going to write it up quite a bit now,'' Els said. ''I am going to stick with my guns.

''Whatever happens must happen. Hopefully with this form, I will have a good chance playing against any field.''

After opening rounds of 70 and 72 left him well behind the leaders at 2 under, Els played the final 36 holes in 13 under. He shot a 6-under 66 on Saturday to pull within three strokes of Faldo, the third-round leader at 11 under.

''I didn't think I had much of a chance, particularly the way I played Thursday and Friday,'' Els said. ''But somehow I got through. This game is quite amazing sometimes.''

The 45-year-old Faldo, winless since the PGA Tour's 1997 Nissan Open, finished at par for a 69, while Lonard settled for a 68 after his closing bogey.

Lonard, playing in the last group with Faldo, pushed his final drive into a corporate hospitality area lined with tents. He hit his approach shot from the right rough into a bunker in a failed bid to attack the difficult pin position.

''I can't say I'm overly excited about losing,'' said Lonard, a two-time winner late last year on the Australasian tour after finishing 41st on the PGA Tour money list as a rookie. ''I suppose I lost trying to win. I went at the flag (on 18). I could have hit to the middle of the green and two-putted. I had a go at it.''

Faldo needed a birdie on No. 18 to force a playoff, but his approach went through the green and against an advertising stand. After a drop, his 60-foot chip was wide of the hole.

''It was disappointing not to be there at the end,'' the six-time major champion said. ''But it was good to be contending again.''

There were some anxious moments for Els on the closing holes. On No. 16, he hit his drive into the rough, and his approach ended up on the edge of a bunker. Els putted past the hole and off the green on the other side but saved par with a 15-foot putt.

He made another par-saving putt from 4 feet on the 17th. On 18, his tee shot hit a spectator and landed near the ropes; otherwise it would have gone into heavy rough. His approach went into a bunker, but he hit out to 4 feet to finish with a par.

The two-time U.S. Open winner earned $212,400.

He's taking a break next week with wife Liezl and their two children in Bali, Indonesia, and will return the following week for the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth.

Scotland's Stephen Gallacher (65), England's Gary Evans (66), Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen (67) and Englishmen David Lynn (69) and Paul Casey (70) tied for fourth at 12 under. American Bob Friend (66) and Australia's Peter Fowler (69) finished 10 under.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press

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