Els breaks par and then some, wins at 31-under
By Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer
KAPALUA, Hawaii — Ernie Els got the PGA Tour off to a record-setting start Sunday, and stated his case as a legitimate challenger to Tiger Woods. The Big Easy shattered the tour's scoring record in relation to par, closing with a 6-under 67 to finish at 31-under and win the Mercedes Championships by eight strokes.
Ernie Els waves after a birdie at No. 3 during the final round.
By Eric Risberg, AP
The previous record was 28-under, set by John Huston at the 1998 Hawaiian Open and by Mark Calcavecchia two years ago in the Phoenix Open. Els finished at 261, breaking by five shots the tournament record set four years ago by David Duval. (Related item: Mercedes Championships results)
Woods is home in Florida recovering from knee surgery that will keep him off tour for at least the first five weeks, but his presence might not have mattered.
Els went wire-to-wire on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, overcoming a sluggish start on the front nine and pulling away from K.J. Choi with birdies on five of his last seven holes.
"We might have a couple tonight," Els said.
It was an important start of the season for the 33-year-old South African, who lost two good chances to win at Kapalua in the previous three years.
One of them was to Woods in a sensational duel that Woods won on the second playoff hole and set the tone for his record-setting season.
Els was playing for the first time since he won the unofficial Nedbank Challenge in Sun City, South Africa, by eight strokes over Colin Montgomerie.
His victim Sunday was Rocco Mediate, who closed with a 73. Mediate also was the runner-up to Calcavecchia when he set the PGA Tour mark of 256 in the 2001 Phoenix Open.
Choi, who had a miserable round on the greens, had a 73 and also finished second at 23-under 269.
"I don't see a problem with Ernie challenging Tiger for the next however many years," Mediate said. "I certainly think Tiger would love for that to happen. He likes to be pushed."
Woods, who won't return until at least the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, already has some catching up to do.
Els won $1 million for his 11th career victory on the PGA Tour, and sits atop the money list for the first time in his career. He plans to play next week in the $5 million Sony Open.
He will be the big favorite until Woods returns.
Els now has won eight times worldwide over the last 13 months, including a victory in the British Open for his third major.
The eight-stroke margin was the largest on the PGA Tour since Calcavecchia in Phoenix, but it was a little deceiving.
The Big Easy had to work for this one.
Starting the final round with a two-stroke lead over Choi, Els predicted a shootout. Not many doubted that when typically strong winds stayed away from Kapalua for the fourth straight day, which contributed to the record scores.
For the first time, everyone in the 36-man, winners-only field finished under par.
Still, Els and Choi came out firing blanks.
Choi had a chance to apply pressure on the Big Easy, but instead practically handed him the tournament with poor putting. The stocky Korean missed from 6 feet for birdie on No. 4, from 8 feet for eagle on No. 5 and from 3 feet for par on the next hole.
Els tried to give it back by failing to birdie the par-5s and missing the green badly to the left on No. 7 for a bogey.
Els made the turn at 1-under, while Choi was even par, the worst two front-nine scores on the final round. Despite the conservative and sometimes sloppy play, Els had a three-stroke lead and remained in control.
Choi cut the lead to one shot with birdies on the 10th and 11th, the closest anyone got to Els all afternoon. Els finally responded.
He nearly drove the green on 373-yard 12th hole and chipped close for birdie, then finally secured victory on the next two holes.
"I was playing a little tentative," Els said. "That tee shot was the key to the round."
Els hit into a bunker on No. 13 and then left himself a 100-foot putt, which he got down in two. From the middle of the fairway, Choi left himself 80 feet from the pin and three-putted for bogey.
Els widened his margin to five strokes on No. 14 by playing safe off the tee and pitching to 6 feet for birdie. Choi tried to drive the green on the 305-yard hole, short-sided himself and wound up three-putting for bogey.
From there, it was only a matter of how badly Els would break the record.
Vijay Singh closed with a 65 to finish at 270, along with Retief Goosen (69). Jim Furyk, who shared the lead with Els after the first round, had a 68 and was among those tied for sixth.
Furyk has never finished out of the top 10 in his five Mercedes Championships at Kapalua, where he has a house near the 18th green.