DUBLIN, Ohio – Ernie Els made two short birdie putts to close out his victory Sunday in the Memorial, an appropriate end to a display that impressed the greatest clutch putter of them all.
“What was the key putt – 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17?” tournament host Jack Nicklaus said mockingly to Els.
Turns out the Big Easy didn’t need to make them all, even though he nearly did.
It started with a slippery 5-footer on the seventh hole to turn back an early charge from Tiger Woods, and it continued throughout the back nine at Muirfield Village to hold off Fred Couples.
•A 10-footer to save par and keep the lead on No. 12.
•A 30-footer on the next hole to restore his cushion.
•A 15-footer to retain his two-shot lead with two holes to play.
When he was done, Els had a 6-under 66 for a four-shot victory that likely will be enough to move him to No. 2 in the world ranking.
“As Jack says, I made almost every putt that I had to make,” Els said. “It’s tough to call one a key putt.”
Els took only 100 putts in the tournament, almost as impressive as his 66-66 on the weekend. He finished at 18-under 270 and earned $945,000 for his 14th career PGA Tour victory.
Couples chipped in for the fifth time this week for birdie at No. 4 to briefly hold the lead, and consecutive birdies early on the front nine got him within one shot and energized the gallery. His hopes ended when his drive found a bunker on the 18th hole, and he made bogey for a 68.
“I hung in there,” Couples said. “I was right there the whole time, which was a great feeling. I lost to the best player by far.”
Els simply didn’t give him, Woods or anyone else a chance.
“People don’t realize how great his short game is,” Couples said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Despite a few wayward shots on the back nine, Woods continued to make strides in his swing and closed with 11 straight pars for a 69, six shots behind. Woods has tied for third, tied for fourth and finished third in his last three tournaments, good momentum to take into the U.S. Open two weeks away.
“I hit the ball very well this week,” Woods said. “I’m playing better. This was another step in the right direction.”
After holding off Vijay Singh for the last six months in the world rankings, Woods’ next challenge comes from his oldest rival – Els – and it could be the strongest of all.
The 34-year-old South African won for the third time worldwide this year, and 10th time since the start of last season. He has supreme control of his game, making only one bogey over the final 40 holes. Watching one putt after another disappear makes him look ever more daunting.
“My putter really saved me,” Els said.
Justin Rose of England (71) was fourth, followed by K.J. Choi of South Korea (72). Defending champion Kenny Perry birdied four straight holes late in the round for a 69 to tie for sixth.
“I just want to play good golf,” Els said. “The rest will take care of itself.”
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