Classical Els singing in the rain

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The Independent Online
On a day illuminated only by the smile of his girlfriend, Lisl, Ernie Els became the first man to win the Toyota World Match Play Championship three times in a row. Vijay Singh, by a margin of 3 and 2, became the ninth man to be vanquished by the South African over the classic test of 36 holes in matchplay since his debut in the event in 1994.

Els won pounds 170,000 to take his earnings from this one event over the last three years to pounds 490,000. "That's a lot of rand," he said. "First of all I'd better buy a couple of rounds in the clubhouse." A car, maybe even one of the sponsor's, might finally be purchased although he has travelled far enough without one.

The victory puts him equal with Greg Norman with three titles, and two behind Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros. Ballesteros (twice), Player and Hale Irwin had won the event in successive years, but it was Irwin who came closest to three in a row when he lost in the 1976 final to David Graham at the 38th hole.

"I've played some really good golf, beaten some good players and had some memorable matches in the last three years," Els said. "Nobody has done it three times before. It will take a while to sink in, but this is something I'll really enjoy."

Singh can be added to a list that began with Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie in 1994; Lee Janzen, Bernhard Langer and Steve Elkington last year, and Steve Stricker and Mark Brooks this time.

While Els demolished the US PGA champion Brooks 10 and 8 on Saturday without needing to be at his best, his hardest match came against Stricker on Friday when he lunched six down. "It never even crossed my mind that I might win the tournament at that moment, let alone three in a row," Els admitted. "I had no confidence, shots weren't coming off, nothing was going on for me. Maybe I should become a very religious person because I was really praying just to get to the second nine in the afternoon."

Singh was the first unseeded player since 1979 to get to the final, but only two players in the last 13 years have won from the first round. He admitted some tiredness early yesterday morning, although it was the Fijian who made the quicker start to be two up after three holes.

His policy all week had been to make his opponent win holes with birdies, but he made more bogeys in the final than he had in all his earlier rounds. "I conceded one hole and made four bogeys - five holes is too many to give away," Singh said. "If you give away shots to Ernie, he is a very hard person to win holes from. If I had played the golf I did yesterday, I would have had a good chance of beating him."

Els birdied the eighth and won the ninth with a par to go two up at the turn, although he bunkered himself and could not match Singh's birdie at the last so the advantage was cut to one at the break. He was, however, more concerned with the health of an observer, Colonel Mike Lake, who inadvertently headed Els' drive back on to the fairway at the 17th.

The rains of Friday returned for the afternoon round and despite losing the first, Els emerged after lunch intent on not getting too wet. He won four holes out of five, the run beginning when Singh's recovery from the trees at the fourth went out of bounds. Els holed from 10 feet at the sixth, won the next with a par, and holed another 10-footer at the eighth. The suspicion that he had introduced string as an artificial aid was confirmed when he struck his five-iron approach to the ninth to a foot from the hole.

Singh had to follow that, and did, his second shot coming to rest five feet away. Having conceded the South African's putt, Singh calmly rolled in his for a half. As he showed against Tom Lehman on Saturday in a match that went to the 37th, Singh is not one for giving up. His sand wedge to the 11th finished two feet away to get one hole back. When Els pulled his drive at the 12th then tried to draw his second round to the blind green and overdid it, the margin should have been cut to two.

But he wedged out from the trees and Singh left his chip 12 feet short and missed the putt. "The green was wet and I thought if I hit a low chip it would skid on, but it didn't," Singh said. Added Els: "I was fortunate to get away with a half. The match could have turned around there." The next four holes where halved in par, Singh missing from seven feet at the 16th to end the match.

Els, 27 last Thursday, won the US Open in 1994, but has not gained a major since. Giving himself a chance to win the Open at Royal Lytham and then not taking it definitely hurt, but at No 4 in the world he is sure he can go three places higher.

"If you want to be the world No 1 you have to perform in the majors," he said. "You have to win the big ones and play well whenever you play. You have to feel you are the best player in the world and have the confidence for that. I think I am getting there."

In the play-off for third and fourth places, Brooks beat the Open champion, Lehman, after birdying the last two holes to go from one down and win by one hole.