Ernie Els, the Rolls Royce of golf, looked every inch the classic model admired by all when he closed with an immaculate, six under 66 to win the WGC-CA Championship by four shots from his South African protégé Charl Schwartzel at blustery Doral.
On paper it looks as though the Big Easy cruised home, swishing silently over the finish line with his faithful chauffeur Ricky Roberts at the wheel. There were no high fives with Roberts as he tapped in for the win. The sense of relief was palpable after a brutally tough challenge from Schwartzel.
He who blinked first lost and it was the 25 year old who cracked with two bogeys in his last four holes his reaction to a monster par save from Els at the 14th that maintained the older man’s slim, one stroke lead.
“I’m 40 years old. I’ve had a tough run,” Els said. “Whew! The hairs are standing up. It’s just great.”
The truth is that after two years without a win, the longest drought of his storied career, the 40 year old South African had to produce some of the best golf of his career to etch out a victory that arguably places him back at golf’s top table.
Had it not been for the formidable challenge produced by Schwartzel (70), the tournament could have developed into a free for all. Instead, the final two-some pushed each other hard until the younger man’s will finally broke four holes from home and Els pulled away.
The three-time major champion was bogey free for hus last 23 holes as he finished on 18-under for his 61st worldwide win, his 17th in the PGA Tour and his second in the WGC-CA Championship since he triumphed in freezing conditions at Mount Juliet in 2004 when American Express were the sponsors.
On that occasion, Els moved to second in the world rankings behind Vijay Singh, relegating Tiger Woods to third place. Having finished second in the Masters to Phil Mickelson and lost the Open after a play-off with Todd Hamilton that year, it was no more than he deserved.
He won six more events in Europe between 2005 and 2007 but none in the US until the 2008 Honda Classic, his last victory on a major tour before Sunday’s triumph at Doral. There was also a serious knee injury in the mix, at least one change of management company and some family problems to be addressed - his son Ben is autistic and the family moved from Wentworth to Florida to make sure he was getting the best possible help.
And so, at the age of 40, Els has finally grown up. No more does he carve doughnuts in the gravel outside Retief Goosen’s house in the small hours, hoping to tempt his fellow South African to head out for a few beers. His priorities have changed and while life is good off the course, he wants to get the most out of his talent on it so he can hang up his clubs with no regrets.
“This means so much,” said Els, who moves from 20th to eighth in the world. “I didn’t think it was ever going to happen again. But I felt all week that the work that I did, that I finally had to trust it at some stage, and there’s no better day to really test yourself.
“I just wanted to prove to myself for once. Charl came at me all day. I had to come up with the goods.”
According to Doug Ferguson’s final round report: Els was clinging to a one-shot lead when he stood over a 25-foot par putt on the 14th hole, relieved to see it fall on the final turn. It was the pivotal moment in the tournament, the kind that Els had been missing since his victory two years ago in the Honda Classic.
“I basically just wanted to make 5 and get out of there,” Els said. “I haven’t been making those kind of putts, and you have to make putts like that to win golf tournaments at some point. Luckily for me, I did it on the 14th hole today. And absolutely, I felt a lot better after that. I felt like maybe this one is for me this week.”
Padraig Harrington played down his chances all week and did not disappoint as worked miracles to shoot a level par 72 that left him tied for third place with Matt Kuchar (68) and Martin Kaymer (69) on 11 under par.
The Dubliner was leaking oil from the start, hitting very few fairways and using his brilliant short game to keep the engine ticking over. But the time he took his head out from under the bonnet and birdied the fifth, Els was three shots clear after birdies at three of the first four holes and it was going to take something outstanding from Harrington or a series of errors by the South African duo to give him hope.
The Irish star did not give up and somehow managed to birdie the 10th, getting up and down for a four despite an awkward stance on the rocky lakeshore to remain three shots off the pace.
It was only a matter of time before the golden thread finally snapped and it did, with three successive bogeys from the 13th ending his hopes of winning his first World Golf Championship.
The 38 year old Dubliner has played more individual WGCs than any other player - 33 - but he his joint runner up finish behind Woods at Firestone last August remains his best result.
At least he walked away with $426,666 which means he has now earned $3,643,024 from World Golf Championships alone since 1999.
Harrington said he was not aware that some of the early starters were burning up the course, such as Ian Poulter (64) or Jason Dufner (65). A tougher set up would have suited his grinding, major-style game but he is still a tournament or two away from firing on all cylinders.
“I struggled a bit all day and had to work hard,” Harrington said. “To be honest, 13, 14 and 15 were three pretty simple up and downs and I didn’t make ‘em. So it was disappointing but I had been hanging on that knife edge all day and I can’t complain over all.
“My bunker play was just not with it and my pitching could have been a bit better. You don’t really see it until you are under pressure. I’m happy - I need to be competing and testing myself.
“I did think the golf course was set up for scoring. The pin positions were nice and the greens were superb and not firm or anything. So while it was windy, if you got on your game you could create chances.”
The Masters is now on the mind of all the top players and Graeme McDowell will get the Bay Hill warm up he wanted when he closed with a bogey free, six under 66 that catapulted him 10 places up the leaderboard to tied sixth with Alvaro Quiros, Paul Casey and Bill Haas on under par.
The highlight of his round was a run of five birdies in a row from the eighth to the 12th and he will now moved comfortably inside the world’s top 50.
“I never thought for one second I could get into the hunt, but this is a great boost for me,” McDowell said.
Rory McIlroy had 10 tops 10s in 12 starts between August and January’s Dubai Desert Classic. He hasn’t played well since the second round in the emirate and limped home tied for 65th in the 68-strong field on seven over after a closing 73.
Following his 40th place finish in the Honda Classic last week, McIlroy’s foray onto the PGA Tour as a full member has been disappointing so far.
Beaten in the second round of last month’s WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, he is 11 over par for his last eight rounds and lies 127th in the FedEx Cup standings and 106th in the money list.
According to PA, McIlroy has been battling the recurrence of a back problem for the last six weeks, but at least that was better in his final round. He told Mark Garrod:
He then headed off to see the Miami Heat basketball team for the second time in three days and joked: “It’s about the only thing that’s making me smile.
“I just didn’t have it and haven’t had it for the last couple of weeks. I’ve a few issues to sort out when I get home.
“The back isn’t worrying me, but it’s getting me down.”
He intends to ease off on the physio work, at least for a while, saying: “Half of it is probably mental. I’m starting off in a negative mood.”