Els eager to banish bridesmaid status

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The Independent Online

Without speaking the dreaded name, Ernie Els sent a sharp message to everybody's favourite for next week's PGA Championship when he completed an impressive four-point victory in the International tournament at Castle Rock, California. In the absence of Tiger Woods, the South African easily held Phil Mickelson, Stuart Appleby and a rejuvenated Greg Norman at bay for his first US Tour win for 18 months, closing with a 69 that was worth eight points and a record-equalling total of 48 under in the modified Stableford format.

Without speaking the dreaded name, Ernie Els sent a sharp message to everybody's favourite for next week's PGA Championship when he completed an impressive four-point victory in the International tournament at Castle Rock, California. In the absence of Tiger Woods, the South African easily held Phil Mickelson, Stuart Appleby and a rejuvenated Greg Norman at bay for his first US Tour win for 18 months, closing with a 69 that was worth eight points and a record-equalling total of 48 under in the modified Stableford format.

Els has finished second in the previous three major championships and been a runner-up five times this year - four of them to Woods. The 30-year-old's prime target at Valhalla, Louisville, on 17 August will be the world No 1. Els admitted how desperately he needed this triumph before again pitting himself against Woods, who will play in the Buick Open in Flint, Michigan, on Thursday.

"If 'you know who' had been here, he would have found it very difficult to beat me this week," Els said. "I had 34 points after two rounds and equalled the record - now let's make it a real horse race at Valhalla."

It was more like a one-horse rodeo in the Rocky Mountains on Sunday even though Mickelson, who set the previous mark in 1997, and Appleby had a run at Els, each scoring an eagle at the 17th. Yet the world No 2 was always in control even though he did not hit a fairway over the last nine holes. He did birdie three of the last five, however, and that effectively slammed the door on his pursuers with Mickelson (12 points), who was 16 points in arrears at the halfway stage, taking second place on 44, three ahead of Appleby (11) with Norman (6) fourth on 38.

Norman, back five weeks after hip surgery, accomplished his mission just by being among the contenders. "I feel the juices flowing, I feel the excitement, I feel the gallery - I feel me," Norman said. "When you are a competitor, you are always a competitor. Your juices are always going to be in there; it's just a matter of firing them up."

The challenge to Woods was gathering elsewhere in the outsized shape of Lee Westwood, poised to enter the final major of the year in the best form of his life having won his fourth European title of the season in the Scandinavian Masters in Stockholm on Sunday. "If I can start rolling a few long ones in, the 15 to 20-foot range, I'll have a really good chance at Valhalla," he said.

"The USPGA is probably going to play more like a US Tour event course than the Masters would or Pebble Beach would - and certainly St Andrews! I think it suits my game; I played well last year. I had a poor weekend [one behind Woods at half-way, he shot 74 and 75 in the last two rounds to be 10 adrift] but a bit of dehydration came into that. The course will certainly suit me and if I play well then I should be in with a chance."

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