Ernie Els Hangs on With Clutch Putts to Win at Bay Hill

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Ernie Els made two clutch
par putts, escaped trouble from a buried lie in the bunker and wound up
wearing a blue blazer Monday for winning the rain-delayed Arnold Palmer
Invitational.

Suddenly, it's easy to picture him in a
different color jacket two weeks from now.

Els overcame a few nervous moments with four
solid pars to wrap up a 1-under 71 and win by two shots at Bay Hill,
giving him back-to-back victories for the first time in seven years and
setting himself up as a favorite at Augusta National.

"I'd like to put this jacket in some dye," Els
said at the trophy presentation. "Some green dye."

Coming off a four-shot victory in the World
Golf Championship at Doral two weeks ago, Els had to work harder than he
should have for his 18th career victory on the PGA Tour.

He had a five-shot lead Sunday afternoon with
six holes remaining until hitting into the water on No. 13 for a double
bogey and hitting into the sand on the next hole for a bogey. Then came
the thunderstorms, halting the final round until it resumed at noon
Monday.

Els immediately felt pressure as he stood over a
6-foot par putt, but he made it.

With his lead down to one shot over Kevin Na,
his 4-iron came up short of the 17th green and plugged into the face of
the bunker. Els blasted out to 6 feet and made that one for par.

"The whole thing changed from being very
comfortable to being just as tense as I've been for a long time," Els
said. "So it was a hard struggle today. If I can say it, I really earned
this one."

He finished at 11-under 277 and moved to No. 7
in the world rankings. Els earned $1.08 million, giving him more than
$3 million for the year and putting him atop the PGA Tour money list.

Na missed an 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th
hole for a share of the lead, then drove into the right rough and had to
lay up short of the water. He hit a wedge within 8 feet and missed the
putt, giving Els some breathing room.

Na closed with a 69 and shared second with
Edoardo Molinari of Italy, who also had a 69.

Els blasted out of the buried lie in the
bunker on the 17th and was knocking the sand from his spikes when he saw
that Na, in the group ahead of him, had driven into the right rough.
When he reached the 18th tee, Els could hear the groan from the gallery
around the green and realized Na had made bogey.

"Even Tiger Woods couldn't have gotten over
the water," Na said, referring to his decision to lay up. "With the lie
as wet as it is, there's absolutely no chance."

Facing a difficult tee shot on the 18th to
secure the victory, Els pretended to be at the Masters.

"It's always in my head this time of the
year," he said. "You try and downplay it, but you do think about it.
Today, I thought about it on the 72nd hole. I was like, 'OK, you're
standing at Augusta and you've got to hit this hard fade.'"

And he nailed it.

Playing cautiously away from the water, he
pulled his approach into the rough near a bunker, chipped to 8 feet and
holed the par putt.

It was his second victory at Bay Hill, the
other coming 11 years ago in a 36-hole Sunday because of rain. Els
became the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001 to win twice on the
Florida Swing. Woods won at Bay Hill and The Players Championship, then
made it three in a row when he captured the Masters.

Els has had nothing but heartache at Augusta
National.

"I know the history of Augusta pretty well,
and there's been a lot of nice stories," Els said. "There's been a lot
of cruel ones — thinking of [Tom] Weiskopf and [Greg] Norman and myself —
but there's also been some really great ones. So we still are hoping
for the great one."

Els planned to fly up to Augusta on Tuesday
for a practice round before playing in the Houston Open.

"I think he's going to be tough at Augusta,"
Palmer said after greeting Els behind the 18th green.

Retief Goosen (69) and Chris Couch (71) tied
for fourth. Ben Curtis, who started the final round one shot out of the
lead, closed with a 74 and finished alone in sixth.

"It's great to see Ernie playing well again,"
Goosen said. "He's really settled in after moving to America now. His
game has seemed to really come around."

Els had gone two years without winning — the
longest drought of his career — and now has consecutive wins for the
first time since he won the Heineken Classic and Johnnie Walker Classic
in Australia early in the 2003 season. Earlier that year, he won the PGA
Tour's first two events in Hawaii.

"I want to make this a special year,
especially after these two wins," Els said. "But I still have a lot of
work left, and there are a lot of majors left. And that's going to be
fun now."

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