ORLANDO, Fla. – Ernie Els made two clutch par putts, escaped trouble from a buried lie in the bunker and wound up wearing a blue blazer Monday for winning the rain-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Suddenly, it’s easy to picture him in a different color jacket two weeks from now.
Els overcame a few nervous moments with four solid pars to wrap up a 1-under 71 and win by two shots at Bay Hill, giving him back-to-back victories for the first time in seven years and setting himself up as a favorite at Augusta National.
“I’d like to put this jacket in some dye,” Els said at the trophy presentation. “Some green dye.”
Coming off a four-shot victory in the World Golf Championship at Doral two weeks ago, Els had to work harder than he should have for his 18th career victory on the PGA Tour.
He had a five-shot lead Sunday afternoon with six holes remaining until hitting into the water on No. 13 for a double bogey and hitting into the sand on the next hole for a bogey. Then came the thunderstorms, halting the final round until it resumed at noon Monday.
Els immediately felt pressure as he stood over a 6-foot par putt, but he made it.
With his lead down to one shot over Kevin Na, his 4-iron came up short of the 17th green and plugged into the face of the bunker. Els blasted out to 6 feet and made that one for par.
“The whole thing changed from being very comfortable to being just as tense as I’ve been for a long time,” Els said. “So it was a hard struggle today. If I can say it, I really earned this one.”
He finished at 11-under 277 and moved to No. 7 in the world rankings. Els earned $1.08 million, giving him more than $3 million for the year and putting him atop the PGA Tour money list.
Na missed an 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole for a share of the lead, then drove into the right rough and had to lay up short of the water. He hit a wedge within 8 feet and missed the putt, giving Els some breathing room.
Na closed with a 69 and shared second with Edoardo Molinari of Italy, who also had a 69.
Els blasted out of the buried lie in the bunker on the 17th and was knocking the sand from his spikes when he saw that Na, in the group ahead of him, had driven into the right rough. When he reached the 18th tee, Els could hear the groan from the gallery around the green and realized Na had made bogey.
“Even Tiger Woods couldn’t have gotten over the water,” Na said, referring to his decision to lay up. “With the lie as wet as it is, there’s absolutely no chance.”
Facing a difficult tee shot on the 18th to secure the victory, Els pretended to be at the Masters.
“It’s always in my head this time of the year,” he said. “You try and downplay it, but you do think about it. Today, I thought about it on the 72nd hole. I was like, ‘OK, you’re standing at Augusta and you’ve got to hit this hard fade.’”
And he nailed it.
Playing cautiously away from the water, he pulled his approach into the rough near a bunker, chipped to 8 feet and holed the par putt.
It was his second victory at Bay Hill, the other coming 11 years ago in a 36-hole Sunday because of rain. Els became the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001 to win twice on the Florida Swing. Woods won at Bay Hill and The Players Championship, then made it three in a row when he captured the Masters.
Els has had nothing but heartache at Augusta National.
“I know the history of Augusta pretty well, and there’s been a lot of nice stories,” Els said. “There’s been a lot of cruel ones – thinking of (Tom) Weiskopf and (Greg) Norman and myself – but there’s also been some really great ones. So we still are hoping for the great one.”
Els planned to fly up to Augusta on Tuesday for a practice round before playing in the Houston Open.
“I think he’s going to be tough at Augusta,” Palmer said after greeting Els behind the 18th green.
Retief Goosen (69) and Chris Couch (71) tied for fourth. Ben Curtis, who started the final round one shot out of the lead, closed with a 74 and finished alone in sixth.
“It’s great to see Ernie playing well again,” Goosen said. “He’s really settled in after moving to America now. His game has seemed to really come around.”
Els had gone two years without winning – the longest drought of his career – and now has consecutive wins for the first time since he won the Heineken Classic and Johnnie Walker Classic in Australia early in the 2003 season. Earlier that year, he won the PGA Tour’s first two events in Hawaii.
“I want to make this a special year, especially after these two wins,” Els said. “But I still have a lot of work left, and there are a lot of majors left. And that’s going to be fun now.”