Sunday, 17 December 2006

Ernie Els ended a 12 month title drought at the South African Airways Open thanks to a brilliant final round of seven under par 65, which blew away the challenge of fellow South African Trevor Immelman at a blustery Humewood Golf Club.

Els, who last won at the Dunhill Championship a year ago following his return from knee surgery, finished on 24 under par 264, three clear of overnight leader Immelman and four ahead of Swede Patrik Sjöland.

In doing so the ‘Big Easy’ extended his record of winning at least one title on The European Tour International Schedule every calendar year since 2002. It was his 23rd European Tour title in all.

All of this was achieved with a superb display of attacking, but controlled golf on a blustery day in Port Elizabeth.

His 24 under par total was a record winning total for South Africa’s national open, surpassing the previous best of 21 under by Tony Johnstone in 1993 (Els was second on that occasion), while victory ensured that he has won at least once in the world every year since 1992.

"That's as good as I can play probably," Els said. "Under the circumstances I was chasing the first couple of holes and then I was in the lead and then I had to protect the lead and be aggressive. There were a lot of different emotions going on today. I view the South African Open like I do a Major, and that's how I played this week.

"I didn't know if I had much of a chance the way Trevor played yesterday evening, but I was on the range yesterday evening and I found something in my swing.

"I was glad to see a little bit of breeze because you had to more on your game to get birdies," added Els. 

Immelman finished second after a slightly disappointing 71, although the 2006 US PGA Tour Rookie of the Year was at least able to keep a charging Sjöland at bay, the Swede ending on 20 under par after a 67.

South African Darren Fichardt carded a final round 68 to sneak into fourth place on 16 under, while first round leader Andrew Raitt of England managed to hold on to a share of fifth place with Retief Goosen and Louis Oosthuizen.

The much-anticipated duel between Els and overnight leader Immelman failed to materialise after the latter struggled in the late-morning wind while Els was imperious.

Immelman started three shots ahead after a course record 63 in the third round, but when the wind picked up it seemed he didn’t have quite the same touch.

Els was quickly off the mark with birdies at the second and fifth holes to close the gap to one stroke before a crucial error by Immelman on the sixth allowed the World Number Eight to take the lead, and subsequently control of the tournament.

Els put his tee shot within four feet of the pin on the par three while Immelman’s effort caught a gust of wind that sent his ball right onto the lip of the green before rolling off into the bunker.

Immelman splashed out some eight feet past the hole and two-putted to make bogey. Els turned the screw with a birdie to move into the lead with a two shot swing on the hole.

Immelman birdied the 11th to move within one, but Els responded with a brace of birdies at the next two holes to take him three clear once again.

Three straight birdies between 14 and 16 sealed it as Els cruised home to a cheering crowd and Immelman never had a chance to catch him, despite birdies on 15 and 17.

Sjöland rattled off four birdies between 14 and 17 as he tried to capture second place, but was unsuccessful in the end. However, the Swede left South Africa delighted by his return to form following the loss of his card in 2005 and a subsequent break away from top flight golf that ended when he regained his card at The 2006 European Tour Qualifying School Final.

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