Els digs deepest to retain his title

Golf reports from Wentworth
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The Independent Online
They looked like they could make a useful southern hemisphere second- row pairing and at times they played golf to match the image. In one of the most uninspired finals, Ernie Els beat Steve Elkington yesterday to win the Toyota World Match Play Championship over the Burma Road for the second year running.

Gripping it was not. Els, who will be 26 tomorrow, won pounds 170,000 after a 2 and 1 victory but he admitted: "I didn't bring my putting stroke with me this week. Still, it was good enough. I don't think either of us were on top of our games. We just couldn't produce the shots we wanted to."

Els made his debut in this championship last year when he enjoyed a vintage triumph over Seve Ballesteros in the second round. For the most part, the field this year produced house plonk and when Els defends his 100 per cent record here in 12 months' time he will look forward to trading blows with the likes of Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo. They were all sorely missed.

Els' victory moves him from fourth to second in the Sony World Rankings, above Bernhard Langer and Nick Price, but behind Norman. "I'd like to be No 1," Els said, "but I don't think my game is there yet. I'm still inconsistent." If Els played his best golf against Lee Janzen in the second round, Elkington was on song at the same stage against Colin Montgomerie.

In previous rounds the players barely had time to snatch a sandwich for lunch but yesterday they could have roasted an ox and had an after-lunch nap before returning to the first tee in the afternoon. "Perhaps it was too long," Elkington said.

In the morning they had gone round in three hours and, because of the television schedule, had time to kill. Another factor was that this time they were not playing behind Langer. On Saturday Elkington was behind the Els-Langer match which took 4hr 20min. "It's no secret that Bernhard's slow," Elkington said.

Yesterday Els had the upper hand in the morning, opening up a three-hole lead by the 12th. At the 11th he hit a sand wedge to four feet for a three and at the next employed the same club to within three feet of the flag for another winning birdie. Els has spent the last month playing social golf in South Africa for a few beers - and all of a sudden he began to play like a weekend golfer.

At the 16th he hit a threewood into the trees and was forced to concede the hole and at the 17th drove out of bounds, again on the left, and lost the hole with a six to a five. However, he won the 18th - that sand wedge again - holing from eight feet whereas Elkington missed from 12 feet.

"The tee shot at 16 was terrible," Els said, "and at the 17th I just wasn't thinking. Those were two really bad swings... feet closed, shoulders open." Nevertheless, he went into a businessman's lunch (two hours) two up so where did that leave Elkington's game? "I played like s...," was the Australian's terse comment after 18 holes. That is exactly how it appeared on the four-word press statement. What did Elkington mean? Perhaps he played like a suet, a sham or even a sudd, which is vegetable matter obstructing the White Nile.

In the afternoon, Els bombarded the pin again, hitting a seven-iron to three feet at the second hole, or 20th, and he also won the next where Elkington missed from nine feet to incur a bogey five. That put Els four up but the gremlins in his game surfaced again and he lost three of the next four holes.

However, Elkington failed to capitalise, taking another bogey five at the 26th where hit two-iron, eight-iron and missed the green. It summed up his day. Els nursed a two-hole lead and mercifully the end came at the 35th where the South African unleashed a two-iron from 245 yards which nearly hit the flag. It was time for his opponent to raise a white flag. "I just didn't hit the ball solid," Elkington, the US PGA champion, said. "It was a funny day." Funny peculiar, not funny ha ha. His compensation was pounds 90,000 and perhaps the sponsors were glad to see the back of his Buick sun visor.

In the 18-hole play-off for third place Costantino Rocca defeated Bernhard Langer 2 and 1 to win pounds 60,000 to the German's pounds 50,000. It brought Langer's winnings in the last three weeks to pounds 230,000 so when he complains about a) being tired and too old, at 38, to play 36 holes a day and b) that he will not play in this championship again unless he is seeded, there is a temptation to think that perhaps he doth protest too much.