Ernie Els gifted himself the ideal birthday present of £1 million and a place in golf’s record books when he successfully defended his HSBC World Match Play Championship title at Wentworth Club, beating the valiant Lee Westwood 2 and 1 in the 36 hole final.
The South African, who turned 35 on the day of the final, pocketed the record first prize in world golf along with the knowledge that he had become the most prolific winner in the 41 years of the prestigious championship, his latest success being his sixth win overall from seven finals and his third success in a row.
Els followed up his wins of 2002 against Sergio Garcia and 2003 against Thomas Björn with a solid display in the shadow of his Wentworth Estate home, which afforded Westwood, the joint top points scorer in last month’s Ryder Cup victory at Oakland Hills Country Club, little chance to show his match play credentials and get back into matters as the closing stretch approached.
It is little wonder that the World Number Two enjoys his time in this event so much. He has now won 22 of the 26 ties he has played since he first teed up in 1994, amassing a total of €4,330,338 (£3,005,000) from his ten appearances, an average of €166,551 (£115,577) per match.
Of course, this latest victory also confirmed that Els had retained his Volvo Order of Merit crown, the winners cheque seeing the South African establish yet another record, namely the first player to break through the €4 million earnings mark in a single season on The European Tour, Els now having €4,061,903 (£2,812,408) to his name in his unassailable position at the head of affairs.
“I am only 35 and I have had six wins, hopefully I will keep playing like this,” said Els. “Now I have the record, I might as well try and build it up, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
“I am very grateful for what has happened here today and it has been wonderful. You know, I don’t really know what else to say. It is a wonderful feeling to win this event again.”
A 36 hole head-to-head contest featuring two of the world’s best exponents of the match play art always had the propensity to be closely contested and so it unfolded over the morning round, played in perfect autumnal conditions on the immaculate West Course, and which ended all square at lunch.
Westwood, who had beaten Els twice previously in the event in 1998 and 2000, grabbed the early initiative, winning three holes in a row from the fourth to move into a two hole lead but the Englishman was soon pegged back, Els taking the seventh and ninth to reach the turn level.
It remained nip and tuck until Westwood won the 16th with a birdie three before handing the South African the 17th when he drove out of bounds, having been distracted by a spectator’s camera phone.
Parity continued into the afternoon before Els grabbed control of proceedings, a birdie three at the third from eight feet at the third moving him one ahead before an eagle three from 12 feet at the fourth saw him double his advantage.
As he showed in Detroit, Westwood is a dogged competitor and refuses to give up and proved that at the 191 yard fifth hole where a superb five iron tee shot to three feet set up a birdie two which reduced Els’s lead to one.
Four holes were halved before Els again nudged further in front at the 184 yard tenth. Whereas the last par three had brought joy for Westwood, this time one brought dismay, as his six iron tee shot flew over the back of the green from where he could do no better than a bogey four to lose the hole.
Another run of four halved holes followed before Westwood glimpsed a glimmer of hope at the 15th thanks to a superb birdie three, following a fine six iron approach shot to three feet, but the Englishman handed the initiative straight back at the next hole, three putting the 16th green to see Els two up with two to play.
While unquestionably now the favourite, Els again gave Westwood hope with an errant drive at the 17th, but finished the match off in style, holing from 20 feet for a birdie four to bring the curtain down on proceedings along with Westwood’s hope of taking the match down the 18th.
In the aftermath, Westwood revealed he had had to contest the final in not the best of health, a fact which made his brave performance all the more laudable.
“I’m feeling awful and to be honest I have felt awful all day,” he said. “The doctor has told me I have a chest infection and a virus so he has given me something to take tonight and tomorrow before I can get to see my own doctor.
“I slept terribly last night after not feeling fantastic yesterday. The main area where it affected me today was putting, bending over and trying to remain still over the ball, I kept feeling like I had no balance and I felt like I was moving all over the place, which is not the best thing to have when you are putting. It is in my ears as well.
“As far as the final was concerned, you don’t want to jack it in, you want to keep going as long as you can, but I just didn’t hole any putts because I couldn’t concentrate.
“It is just one of those things though, isn’t it. It has been a long three weeks and we have played in some atrocious conditions, end of a long season, I feel quite run down to be honest and this today just sapped all my energy.”