2004: PGA Tour - Els hunting Tiger after Memorial win

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Dublin, Ohio

At least for the moment, Tiger Woods seems to have survived Vijay Singh’s recent challenge for the world No. 1 spot. Now, with the second major of the year fast approaching, he may have to withstand a full-scale Ernie Els onslaught.

Els, showing frightening command of his game in closing with his second consecutive 66, putted with precision to finish four shots ahead of Fred Couples and six in front of Woods June 6 at the Memorial.

The triumph was enough to move Els ahead of Singh in the Official World Golf Ranking, 2.28 points behind Woods, and was the South African’s third worldwide victory of 2004. (Els remained No. 3 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, although he gained ground on both. Woods has a rating of 67.28, Singh 67.54 and Els 67.58.)

Jack Nicklaus’ tournament always seems to produce big-name leaderboards, and this year was more of the same. Tied for the lead with 1998 Memorial champion Couples and three-time winner Woods (1999, 2000, ’01) midway through the final round, Els took the lead for good with back-to-back birdies on Nos. 7 and 8, then sealed it by taking only 11 putts on the final nine holes.

Time after time, with clutch putt after clutch putt, Els held Couples at bay over the back nine at Muirfield Village, including a crucial 15-foot par save on the 16th hole that allowed him to keep a two-shot lead.

“It was a tough week, but a very rewarding week,” Els said after shaking hands with Nicklaus on the 18th green.

“My putter really saved me. Freddie was pushing me. Tiger was pushing us on the front nine. Luckily, I was able to make some big putts.”

Els then used pinpoint approach shots to birdie the last two holes from inside 5 feet to finish at 18-under 270. Couples kept the pressure on, matching Els’ birdie on No. 17. But he made bogey after a poor drive on the final hole, dropping him to 68 for the day and 14 under for the tournament.

“I was right there the whole time. That’s a great feeling for me,” said Couples, who has finished first, second, third and fourth in this event. “I was second, but I lost to the best player by far. The back nine, he just turned it on.”

With consecutive birdies at Nos. 11 and 12, Couples had a chance to share the lead when Els missed the 12th green and faced a 10-footer for par. But Els sank that putt, then holed a 30-footer on the next hole to restore his two-shot cushion.

“The biggest one of the tournament,” Els said of his long birdie on No. 13.

Then, on the par-3 16th, Els hit his tee shot into the gallery and followed with a lackluster chip to 15 feet, creating the opportunity for a two-shot swing. However, Couples narrowly missed his birdie try and Els poured in yet another par putt — to retain his two-shot lead with two holes to play. His victory was worth $945,000 and made the Big Easy only the third player – joining Nicklaus and Tom Watson – to win at both Muirfield Village and the course’s namesake in Muirfield, Scotland.

Woods, meanwhile, continued to make strides in his game heading into the U.S. Open June 17-20 at Shinnecock Hills. He was virtually flawless on the front nine, making three birdies in a four-hole stretch (Nos. 4, 5 and 7) to briefly catch Els, but he couldn’t keep pace the final 11 holes, parring all of them, including a spectacular save at the par-4 14th.

After he hit a 4-iron into the creek off the tee, Woods flew the green into matted-down rough and faced a chip that ran swiftly toward the water. From 50 feet away, he played a full flop that landed softly and dropped for par.

It was similar to Woods’ chip-in to save par on the same hole in 1999.

“I hit the ball very well this week,” said Woods, who has finished third, fourth and third in his last three events. At Memorial, he drove the ball better, hitting 44 fairways. “I’m playing better. This was another step in the right direction.”

Els just happened to take a bigger one.

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