Ernie Els completed a second successive victory last night and is the hottest player in golf with the Masters now only nine days away. The 40-year-old South African survived a tense finish to beat Italian Edoardo Molinari and American Kevin Na by two shots after the storm-hit Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill spilled into a fifth day.
Els, among 21 players unable to complete his final round on Sunday, resumed two ahead with four to play, but that became one when Na birdied the long 16th. In the trees off the tee at the same hole, Els had to settle for par there, but as he saved par from a greenside bunker on the short 17th, Na found trouble down the last.
Driving into the right-hand rough led to a bogey five, dropping the Korean-born player alongside former US Amateur champion Molinari on nine under par. Both closed with three under 69s. Els, who sank testing six-footers at the 15th and 17th, knew a bogey would be good enough at the final hole, but parred it for a 71, an 11-under aggregate and his 64th professional victory. He lifted the WGC-CA Championship in Miami by a much more comfortable four-shot margin two weeks ago and this was a far nervier affair.
Play was suspended yesterday with Els having just allowed his five-stroke lead to dwindle by double-bogeying the 13th – he found the water there – and bogeying the 14th.
"Obviously I'm not totally at ease with myself right now," said the former Open and US Open champion on Sunday night of his situation. "I'll be thinking about it all night. It won't be a very peaceful night. I'm a little angry or disappointed or whatever you want to call it. There's still work out there to be done and I've got to get it done. I've got to go out there and play four holes as good as I can."
Na, with the added pressure of needing a top two finish to climb into the world's top 50 and gain a spot in the Masters, was his closest overnight challenger, but was facing an 80-foot birdie putt on the 15th.
"I was playing well and Ernie looked like he was struggling," he said. "Probably good for Ernie that they called it so he can clear his head a little bit.
"For me, I need to make birdies to catch Ernie." He managed one, but the closing bogey ended his hopes of a first US Tour victory and left him with a third runners-up finish on the circuit.
Molinari, meanwhile, once more overtakes his brother Francesco in the world rankings and has given his Ryder Cup chances another big boost. The two World Cup winners will link up at Augusta next week for the opening major of the year.