MELBOURNE: South African superstar Ernie Els played superior pressure golf in the closing holes to claim the European Tour co-sanctioned Heineken Classic by one shot in a gripping finish at Royal Melbourne yesterday.
The 33-year-old world number two has won three of his past four tournaments to continue a blazing start to 2003 and is eyeing a compelling showdown with undisputed number one Tiger Woods sometime in the northern Spring.
The “Big Easy”, out of sorts in the first two rounds – he was 10 shots adrift of halfway leader Paul Casey, recaptured his winning rhythm to successfully defend the trophy he won last year by five strokes when he led from start to finish.
Els saved his best golf until last with the day's best round of seven-under 65 studded with eight birdies for a 72-hole aggregate of 15-under 273.
He tipped out in-form Australian Peter Lonard (67-72-67-68) and six-time major champion Nick Faldo (69-71-65-69) for the US$210,000 winner's cheque.
“The whole weekend I was just trying to get things going again,” Els said.
“Yesterday I hit the ball really well and with golf you just hope that the next day is going to be as good.”
Of his keenly awaited tussle with Woods, Els said: “It will come to a head sooner or later. I am going to stick to my guns and we're working on a certain goal and we're heading towards it.
“Hopefully, with this form I will have a good chance playing against any field.”
Lonard, who was after his third consecutive Australian tournament victory following wins in the Australian Masters and Australian PGA in December, missed a three-metre putt at the last hole which would have forced a playoff.
Els made two super par saves at the 17th and 18th holes which proved decisive as Lonard fruitlessly chased a birdie over his two remaining holes to claim outright victory.
Lonard skewed his drive right and in a poor position to attack the pin at the par-four last hole and his make or break pin-high second shot just failed to carry a greenside bunker.
The Australian got out of the bunker to within three metres of the flag to miss birdie and then just failed to sink the putt for the playoff.
“I lost trying to win. I can't fault myself for having a go at it and if I had the chance again, I would play the same shot,” Lonard said of his seven-iron 155-yard shot to the 18th hole.
Els came to Melbourne with back-to-back US PGA Tour victories in the Mercedes Championship and the Sony Open in Hawaii and just missed out on a hat-trick in Singapore last weekend.
“There is still improvement to be made. I'm looking forward to playing again. I just want to get better,” Els said.
“It has been hectic for the last four weeks but I have a beautiful week next week (holidaying with family in Bali). I am really looking forward to that. I should be ready when I play in Perth (Johnnie Walker Classic in mid-February).”
Faldo, the three-time winner of both the British Open and US Masters, was chasing his first tournament victory in almost six years since the 1997 Nissan Open in Los Angeles.
Scotland's Stephen Gallacher, the nephew of former Ryder Cup captain Bernard, shared the day's best round of 65 with Els and Australian Jarrod Moseley.
Gallacher finished in a five-way share of fourth at 12-under 276 with English trio David Lynn, Gary Evans and Casey along with Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen. – AFP