Els outlasts Woods comeback

Posted: Monday, March 04, 2002

MIAMI -- A duel that Ernie Els never wanted turned into a victory he desperately needed Sunday in the Genuity Championship.

Tiger Woods made Els' eight-stroke lead nearly disappear before the magic ran out on the Blue Monster at Doral, but not before he made the Big Easy sweat out a two-stroke victory, his first on the PGA Tour in 18 months.

''I made him work for it,'' Woods said.

Els closed with an even-par 72, and adding to the struggle was watching Woods in the group ahead put on a dazzling show of big drives and key putts. The comeback was so swift and shocking that Woods had a 40-foot eagle putt on the 12th hole to tie for the lead.

He settled for birdie and the 32-year-old South African finally answered, making a 12-foot birdie after him to restore his two-shot cushion.

Woods never made another birdie, although he had three chances inside 15 feet down the stretch. He had a 14-foot birdie putt on the 18th that would have put enormous pressure on Els, but it stayed high of the hole.

Woods closed with a 66, playing his 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 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.

Els, however, didn't buckle this time.

He made a terrific par save from 50 feet off the 14th green, and his swing held up just fine under the pressure of the final four holes, all of them two-putt pars.

''I made it interesting,'' Woods said. ''I didn't give him the tournament. He had to earn it.''

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 never gave up, putting relentless pressure on Els from the start.

''I wanted to cut the lead in half after nine holes,'' Woods said.

He did one better, with a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 9 getting him within three strokes. When Els putted out for par and saw a backup on the par-5 10th, he elected to sit on his golf bag just off the ninth green rather than wait with Woods on the tee box.

The delay was 20 minutes, which didn't slow Woods' momentum at all. He pitched to 3 feet for another birdie and, Els was met with more bad luck.

His second shot into the par-5 was in perfect shape until it took one more hop into gnarly rough, and Els had virtually no chance to get it close to a pin that was downgrain and downhill. His chip didn't reach the green, and he had to settle for par.

The turning point was Els' birdie putt on No. 12, which restored a small cushion. It was only his second birdie of the round.

Peter Lonard of Australia 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.

The momentum slowed -- all pars the next five holes -- but Els contributed to a shrinking advantage with bogeys on the second and sixth holes.

He finally got his game together, and finally got the best of Woods.

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.

Divots: Woods hit a 6-iron over the 15th green, the ball hanging on the lip of thick rough just above the bunker. NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller called it ''makeable'' chip, and when Woods pitched short to 8 feet, Miller called the ''worst chili-dip'' he's ever seen Woods did. Woods begs to differ. ''He said THAT was makeable?'' Woods said. ''No comment. I don't want to get myself in trouble. It was not that easy.'' ... The Blue Monster played to an average of 71.94 in the final round, with wind gusts of about 20 mph.

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