NEWPORT BEACH – World Golf Hall of Famer Ernie Els won his first PGA Tour Champions title on Sunday at Newport Beach Country Club, but it was anything but easy for smooth-swinging South African nicknamed “The Big Easy.”
Though Els began the final round with a one-shot lead, the shootout he had anticipated a day earlier materialized immediately, with fellow Hall of Famer and hometown favorite Fred Couples revving up the crowd by making birdies on three of the first four holes to get within a shot of the lead.
And the list of contenders kept growing as the round progressed, with five players – including Els – sharing the lead on the back nine at one juncture.
But it was Els who played solid golf down the stretch while the other leaders made mistakes, one by one, to pave the way for his two-stroke victory in the 25th Hoag Classic.
“I had to work hard for it, and that’s a good thing to do, to work hard for something,” Els said afterward, standing on the 18th green, where minutes earlier he was presented with the crystal championship trophy, $270,000 winner’s check and the white Hoag Hospital lab coat bearing the hospital logo and “Doctor of Golf” nametag.
“I’m glad the first one’s over with, and we can move on now, and it gets more comfortable after this.”
In his third start on the 50-and-over Champions tour, El shot 66-64-67 to finish at 16-under par, two shots ahead of Couples (66 on Sunday), Glen Day (64) and Robert Karlsson (66), all of whom had a share of the lead but tied for second at 14-underafter squandering their chances to win.
It was Els’ first victory on any tour since the 2013 BMW International Open on the European Tour and his first in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event since the 2012 British Open.
The pressure seemed to affect all of the contenders except Els, a four-time major champion with 19 PGA Tour victories and 47 international titles.
Day birdied four consecutive holes (Nos. 14-17) to temporarily take the outright lead at 15-under but bogeyed the par-5 18th hole after attempting a risky second shot from the fairway with his driver and pulling it left of the green.
Playing two groups ahead of Els, Couples could have tied for the lead with a birdie on 18, but he fluffed a third-shot flop shot from behind the green and had to settle for par. “I butchered the two par-5s (Nos. 15 and 18) coming in,” Couples said of making par on two holes that yield the most birdies. “Other than that, I had a really, really good round.”
Playing in the next-to-last group, Karlsson could have tied for the lead with a birdie on No. 18, but his second shot went over the green, his eagle chip raced 15 feet past the flagstick, and he missed his birdie putt. (Karlsson also had missed two short birdie putts earlier on the back nine for the outright lead.)
And Scott McCarron, who was in the final group with Els and also had a share of the lead on Sunday, made bogeys on the 15th and 17th holes to fall out of contention. He birdied the 18th to get to 13-under and finish fifth.
Els said he checked the scoreboard often to know where he stood, and he knew from the absence of roars on the 18th green that Couples and Karlsson had not made birdies ahead of him on the last hole. “So I just had to survive,” he said.
On the 18th , he did better than that, hitting his second shot into a greenside bunker and getting up-and-down for birdie to increase his margin of victory to two shots.
“I’d like to think I would have made birdie (if he needed it on the 18th to win), but obviously having to make par on a par-5, most of us can handle that,” he said, smiling.
The only drama Els had in playing the final six holes 3-under par was after he pulled his tee shot on No. 16 onto a gravel path near the cement restraining wall left of the fairway. He asked for a ruling, got free relief from the path that he called a “tournament-saving drop” and made par to keep his round going.
“I hit some good shots coming in,” Els said, distinguishing his play from the contenders he separated himself from on the day he won his first PGA Tour Champions title. “You don’t want something falling in your lap. It was a great week, and I’m looking forward to the next one.”
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