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Els’ moves to second ranked player in world with victory

Two months ago, Ernie Els had no desire to keep playing. The major championships took a lot of him and gave nothing in return but heartache.

“I was nowhere,” Els said. “I was very disappointed back then about the summer.”

Suddenly, the outlook is as bright as ever.

His goals renewed and his batteries recharged, Els looked like a world-beater again Sunday with a one-shot victory in the American Express Championship after a hard-fought duel with Thomas Bjorn in the cold rain.

It wasn’t a major, but it felt like one.

“The players, the media, myself … 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 today.

“All in all, it was very rewarding.”

Els closed with a 3-under 69, keeping pace with an early charge from Bjorn and pulling ahead with a clutch birdie on the 17th that gave him a two-shot margin and the luxury to bogey the final hole and still win his first World Golf Championship title.

Els finished at 18-under 270 and earned $1.2 million, breaking the European tour record for single-season money and giving him a solid lead over Retief Goosen.

The victory also enabled Els to move past Tiger Woods at No. 2 in the world ranking, setting up a showdown with Vijay Singh the rest of the year. Both are scheduled to play the next two events on the European tour.

“It’s nice, but I’m still No. 2,” Els said with that easy laugh. “I’ve been chasing Tiger for the last five, six years. And now it seems like I’ve got to chase Vijay. It’s fine. I just feel I’m really in a much better frame of mind right now.”

The victory comes two months after the latest setback for the 34-year-old South African, who was in position to win all four majors and didn’t get any of them.

Phil Mickelson’s birdie on the 72nd hole beat him at the Masters. An 80 from the final group cost him a chance at the U.S. Open. He lost to unheralded Todd Hamilton in a four-hole playoff at the British Open. And he made a bogey on the last hole of the PGA Championship, which knocked him out of a playoff.

For a guy who has struggled with “the little man” in his head, Els had every reason to shut it down.

Instead, he took two weeks off and worked on his fitness, trying to put the disappointment behind him.

“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.”

That was no small task Sunday at Mount Juliet.

Whenever Els tried to put some distance between him and Bjorn, the 33-year-old Dane stayed on his heels. Both birdied the opening hole. Both made birdie at the third hole.

“If you had asked me before we went out, if I thought 68 was good enough, I would have said yes,” Bjorn said. “He played golf without mistakes today, Ernie, and that’s what he’s very good at.”

Bjorn was remarkable in his own right.

Four months ago in Ireland, Bjorn walked off the course during the opening round at the European Open and said he was mentally unfit to play, his confidence so low that even the largest greens looked like the tiniest of targets.

Bjorn was a changed man at Mount Juliet.

“He played like Tiger or Vijay today,” Els said. “He wouldn’t go away.”

Els and Bjorn were the only players to shoot in the 60s all four rounds at Mount Juliet.

“This is a massive step in the right direction,” Bjorn said. “This is a sign for me that, yeah, I can play with the big boys again. I came up one shot short of Ernie, but I came up a long way ahead of everybody else. And that gives me a good indication of where my golf is going.”

David Howell of England, who played in the final threesome, was a bystander to a terrific battle. He shot a 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 cold, gray afternoon that made temperatures in the low 50s feel like winter. 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 couldn’t keep pace with the leaders on the weekend and closed with a 70 to finish eight shots behind.

“I’m happy to have played all four rounds,” Woods said. “I don’t know how I did it, but I got a top 10 out of it.”

Woods finished ninth, and slipped to No. 3 in the world for the first time since May 1999.

Next up could be wedding bells. Irish newspapers reported earlier this week that Woods and Elin Nordegren are getting married in Barbados, a report that he refused to confirm.

Asked if he was ready for some heat on a Caribbean island, Woods said, “I’m ready to go diving. I’m ready to hop in that water and shoot some fish.”

Els clearly is ready to hop into the race for No. 1, a vast improvement from two months ago.

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