Els relegates Woods to No. 3 with victory at American Express

Monday, October 4, 2004

THOMASTOWN, Ireland -- The pressure to win made Ernie Els feel like he was in a major. Given all he has been through this year, his victory in the American Express Championship sure felt like one.

Emotionally spent from a Grand Slam season of heartache, Els reasserted himself as a major force Sunday by outlasting Thomas Bjorn in a brilliantly played duel in the cold rain at Mount Juliet. He closed with a 3-under 69 for a one-shot victory and his first World Golf Championship.

"Everybody knows what I've been through this summer," Els said. "I had a lot of pressure on me, and I think I showed that I didn't want to lose."

The Big Easy had every reason to feel sorry for himself.

He lost the Masters when Phil Mickelson birdied the last hole. He played in the final group of the U.S. Open and shot 80. He lost the British Open in a four-hole playoff against unheralded Todd Hamilton. And a bogey on the final hole knocked him out of a playoff at the PGA Championship.

"I wanted to forget about the majors, the near misses," Els said. "I needed to get that out of my system and start over. Otherwise, I'm going to get left behind. I don't want to do that. I want to win tournaments, and the only way you can do it is to move forward."

Els took one small leap with his fourth victory of the year.

He moved past Tiger Woods to No. 2 in the world ranking, and the 34-year-old South African now has yet another chance to reach No. 1 by the end of the year.

Els and Vijay Singh, who did not play this week because of the latest hurricane in Florida, are scheduled to play the next two tournaments in Europe.

"The game is on," Els said.

The game at Mount Juliet was on from the opening hole, and never let up until Bjorn failed to make a 40-foot birdie putt on the final hole. That allowed Els to two-putt for bogey from 15 feet to finish at 18-under 270.

Els won $1.2 million and set the single-season earnings record on the European tour, topping $4 million.

David Howell of England, who played in the final threesome, was a bystander to a terrific battle. He shot 71 and finished third, five shots behind Els.

Darren Clarke holed out a 110-yard wedge for eagle to fire up the Irish gallery on a gray afternoon with the temperature in the low 50s. He wound up with a 68 and tied for fourth with Sergio Garcia (70).

Woods now is without a stroke-play title for the first time since he won the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, the fifth tournament of his career. He overcame a back injury that improved as the week went on, but he couldn't keep pace with the leaders on the weekend and closed with a 70 to finish eight shots behind.

PGA Tour

Fred Funk birdied the final hole to finish off a final-round 6-under 66 and win the Southern Farm Bureau Classic by a stroke Sunday, his first PGA Tour victory in six years.

The 48-year-old U.S. Ryder Cup player tied a course record at Annandale Golf Club with a 22-under 266 to win for the first time since he won here in 1998.

After he left his 75-foot eagle putt short on 18, he sank a 4-foot putt to win it, then pumped his fist and screamed "Yes!" as the gallery cheered.

Funk had seven birdies and a bogey to become the second two-time tour winner at the par-72, 7,199-yard course. He surged to the top of the leaderboard with a 64 on Saturday, and held off Ryan Palmer in the final round for his sixth tour victory.

Palmer had a chance to go to 22-under on 18, but he left his 49-foot eagle putt 5 inches short and tapped in for birdie.

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