Ernie Els held off a resurgent Thomas Björn to capture his first World Golf Championships event with a one stroke victory in the WGC – American Express Championship at Mount Juliet Conrad in Ireland.
Els battled against the elements to become only the second European Tour Member after Darren Clarke to win an individual WGC title, shooting a final round 69 for an 18 under par total of 280 to finish one clear of Björn, who closed with a 68, with David Howell third a further four strokes adrift and Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia completing a clean sweep of European Tour Members in the top five.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington and US Open Champion Retief Goosen of South Africa also finished in the top ten alongside Open Champion Todd Hamilton of America and one ahead of defending champion Tiger Woods.
Victory for Els, his fourth of the year, lifted him ahead of Woods in the Official World Golf Ranking to Number Two and takes his season’s earnings to €3,368,121 on the Volvo Order of Merit, establishing a new record for a single season.
Furthermore Els took his European Tour career earnings through the €15 million barrier with only Colin Montgomerie ahead of him in the career earnings.
A sensational final day for European Tour Members evolved into a titanic battle befitting a leaderboard packed with so many of the game’s greatest players as Björn and Els effectively went head to head. Bjorn stated his early intentions with a stunning birdie on the first hole, almost holing his second shot for a tap in birdie but Els followed him in and it was game on.
Both players pulled clear of the rest of the field as they took centre stage. Björn made a fast start with three birdies in the first five holes but Els responded with two of his own to keep one stroke clear. Björn kept pushing but Els made no mistakes and eventually stuck a killer blow with a birdie on the 17th to give himself a two stroke cushion playing the last, allowing him the luxury of a bogey to claim the €979,113 prize.
“Thomas kept me on my toes right to the last shot, last putt,” said Els. “It was a very tough day, but right now I'm so happy, really. It's been a tough summer. It's been a good summer but a tough summer, and this really caps it off for me.
“I think I had more pressure than anybody in the field today. If I look back now, I think Thomas was not supposed to win. Thomas is making a comeback and I don't think he had all the pressure on him. I had to win it or lose it so I had a lot more pressure on me. And I think the players, myself, everybody knows what I've been through through the summer. I think I showed that I didn't want to lose today.”
For Björn, the WGC – American Express Championship marked the end of a long road for the Dane. On his last visit to Ireland in July, inner demons forced him to walk off the course after just six holes but now he is back to his best, challenging for the title.
“I think I'm disappointed, but obviously proud of what I've done this week,” said Björn. “I've only come up one short. It's always disappointing, but if it wasn't for one player in this field….we are both quite a bit ahead of the next ones, and that just goes to show what kind of golf we played.
“I'm proud of what I've done this week. I've come a long way, and this is what I want to be a part of. Thinking back on the last six or seven months, this is a massive improvement. I'm just happy with being in this situation. I've come such a long way. It's been a long trip for me, and I'm just happy with what I've done this week. Unfortunately it was just not good enough to win.”
Howell, brimming with confidence since The Ryder Cup, put in another fine performance to claim third place with a final round of 71 for a 13 under par total of 275.
“I’m delighted,” said Howell. “Ernie and Thomas got off to a fast start so it soon became a case of finishing as high as I could and I’m thrilled with third. It’s been a great week.”