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Sunday, 08 February 2004
Ernie Els claimed his third consecutive Heineken Classic title at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Victoria, but only after surviving a remarkable final day where he nearly entered the record books for the wrong reasons.

In the end, a final round 74 for a 20 under par total of 268 was good enough to beat Adam Scott by a shot after the Australian had closed with 67 for 269. The victory was Els’s 50th as a professional worldwide and moved him back to where he finished the 2003 season, namely at the top of the Volvo Order of Merit with €258,802 (£176,920) to his name.

The South African became only the fifth player in European Tour history to win an event three years in a row - following Ian Woosnam (Monte Carlo Open 1990-92), Nick Faldo (Irish Open 1991-93), Colin Montgomerie (Volvo PGA Championship 1998-2000) and Tiger Woods (WGC – NEC Invitational 1999-2001) – but he so very nearly entered the record books as the player to lose the biggest third round lead in European Tour history.

Starting the final day eight shots clear of the field after his course record opening round of 60 and subsequent efforts of 66 and 68, Els appeared invincible and it was certainly a feeling shared by the bookmakers who had stopped taking bets on the South African to win.

But Els lost all eight shots in the space of an incredible nine holes which featured bogeys at the first, third, seventh and ninth alongside a triple bogey seven at the fourth, a run which sent him tumbling back to meet his only realistic challenger, Scott, on 16 under. It was the first time since the 11th hole of the opening round he had sacrificed the outright lead.

The pair, playing together for the fourth day running, both birdied the tenth but Els regained his composure and eased the pressure on himself with a run of three consecutive birdies from the 12th to move two shots ahead on 20 under par after Scott also birdied the 14th.

That was to prove to be Els’s winning total, but Scott kept the pressure on with a 25 foot birdie putt on the 17th to move again within one shot of the leader. Not for the first time, the South African was left smiling ruefully as the tournament came down to the last hole. But after Els had putted out for par, Scott's birdie effort from 25 feet stopped inches short of the cup, and the defending champion made it three wins in succession.

Scott finished on 19 under par 269, with fellow Australian Peter Fowler third on 15 under par 273, Sweden's Peter Hanson one shot further back on 274, while and Stephen Gallacher of Scotland and New Zealand's Michael Campbell tied for fifth on 13 under par 275.

Els, naturally delighted to have won, admitted he had felt helpless at times during the incredible front nine. “It was like I had never played this game before on the first nine and then I played the back nine as well as I could. It was a tough day,” he said.

“I was a little unsure about the breeze. I played one really bad shot at the fourth. Then on nine I was thinking 'what's going on here'. It was unbelievable. You just feel helpless out there at times. The golf course is playing tougher and you just can't play the shots. I don't know how I brought it back, but I did.

“I was the only one that really knew how tough this was with a big lead,” he said. “You can't let it slip at this level and I did. You have to give Adam Scott a lot of credit. He hung in there and at the end there was just one putt in it.”

After his start of bogey-birdie-bogey, Els's round began to unravel on the 450 yard par four fourth when his second shot thudded into the back bunker. From there, due to the treacherous slope, Els had to pitch out sideways to the edge of the green and could only look on in disbelief as his chipped fourth shot rolled back down to his feet. A second attempt stopped 20 feet past the hole from where he two putted for a seven.

Els levelled his slide with two pars, but further bogeys on seven and nine left him tied for the lead with Scott, his playing partner, who had begun the day on 14 under par.

The 23 year old Australian, who won on both The European Tour and the US PGA Tour last year, admitted he had been “inspired” as he played alongside Els over the first three days and had attempted to just “remain in his slipstream.”

Els’s winning total of 20 under par 268 matched the lowest winning total in the event – posted by Michael Campbell in 2000 – while he became the first player to win the Heineken Classic three times and the only player to win after leading after every round.

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