2003: Els continues trophy-filled trek around the world

Melbourne, Australia

From South Africa to Orlando to Hawaii to Singapore to The Land Down Under, Ernie Els continues to pile up golf trophies to go alongside his mounting sky miles.

Gary Player estimates he has spent four years of his life on a plane, traveling from tournament to tournament. Els might not yet be at that point – nor has he matched the victory totals of his fellow South African – but give him time. He seems on track to make a pretty good run at both.

Els’ travels not withstanding, he has managed to beat back jet lag – as well as most of his foes. After storming back to win the Australasia/PGA European Tour’s Heineken Classic Feb. 2, Els continues to close the gap on you-know-who.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been inactive while nursing a surgically repaired left knee. But Els’ 10 victories in the past 131/2 months, including three in four starts to begin 2003, have the world taking notice.

That would include Woods, although he hedged a bit when asked of ensuing head-to-head matchups.

“If Ernie got off to this great start and I knew he was going to play 30 events on our tour, then I think it would be a bigger deal,” Woods said of spotting the world’s No. 2 a significant head start on the 2003 money list. “Actually, between now and the Masters we’ll be playing the same tournaments for a while. So we’ll get a better reading of where we stand.”

Beginning with the 2002 season-ending Nedbank Challenge, Els has won four of his last five events. His only nonvictory was in Singapore, where he closed with a 73 and finished second by one stroke.

Still, as he roars through his schedule and bores through opponents, Els tries to ignore his No. 1 target – Woods.

“Well, it will come to a head sooner or later,” Els said. “You guys are probably going to write it up. But I’m going to stick with my guns.”

His famed game was off through two rounds at the Heineken. He was 10 shots off the lead after 36 holes and had all but given up hope of winning.

But that was before he finished 66-65 to vault past 36 players and successfully defend his title at historic Royal Melbourne.

Since December, Els has won the Nedbank in South Africa, won twice in Hawaii and now has won in Australia. Still, he surprised even himself with his comeback in Melbourne.

“This one is good . . . sweet,” said Els, who finished at 15 under par, won 207,309 euros (approximately $212,400), and now leads both the PGA Tour and European Tour money lists. “I didn’t think I had much of a chance, particularly the way I played Thursday and Friday. But somehow I got through.

“This game is quite amazing sometimes.”

Els’ game is more amazing than most these days, and he worked his magic in Melbourne at the expense of Nick Faldo and Peter Lonard, each of whom finished one stroke back.

Faldo had a one-stroke lead over Lonard, Niclas Fasth and Paul Casey heading into the final round, but it was Els, lying in the weeds at three back, who made a final-round charge.

Faldo, 45, winless since the 1997 Nissan Open on the PGA Tour, missed the green at the par-4 18th and settled for par and a round of 69. He was somewhat discouraged, but the disappointment was tempered.

“I’m pleased that I stuck in there against the hottest man in golf,” Faldo said. He then took a moment to weigh in on a Woods-Els showdown.

“Tiger will be rusty or limping, one or the other,” Faldo said. “Ernie is going to be hot. It could be very interesting.”

Lonard, playing in the last group with Faldo in Melbourne, had an interesting finish, pushing his final drive into a corporate hospitality area lined with tents. He took an aggressive line on his approach from the right rough, his shot falling short into a front bunker. He blasted to 10 feet but missed the putt that would have forced a playoff.

“I can’t say I’m overly excited about losing,” Lonard said. “I suppose I lost trying to win.”

Els was waiting on the practice green, preparing for a playoff that never happened. And so he walked off with his fifth victory in his last seven starts. He is taking a break with wife Liezl and their two children in Bali, Indonesia, and will return to the European Tour the following week. His next U.S. start: the WGC-Accenture Match Play Feb. 26-March 2, where he’ll be in a bracket opposite you-know-who.

“I have a beautiful week this week, then back to the Johnnie Walker in Perth,” Els said. “Hopefully, in this form, I will have a good chance playing against any field.”

– Staff and wire reports

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