Ernie Els wins title in Hoag Classic debut
Ernie Els stood at the 18th tee and listened for the roar that he knew would come if Newport Beach’s own Fred Couples sank a birdie putt in front of him.
It did not come.
When he saw Robert Karlsson unable to join him atop the leaderboard after finishing with a par in the preceding group, too, Els finally could breathe easy.
The man known as the “Big Easy” birdied the final hole, giving him a two-stroke win over three others at 16-under-par 197 in the Hoag Classic at Newport Beach Country Club on Sunday.
Els, who carded rounds of 66, 64 and 67 in the tournament, earned his first win in three starts on the PGA Tour Champions. While the celebration was a modest one, as if he had done it before, the self-proclaimed “rookie” said that he liked the fact that he had to work hard for his first win on the senior circuit.
“I didn’t have that free-flowing feeling,” said Els, who shot four-under 67 in the final round. “I had to work hard for it, and that’s a good thing to do, to work hard for something. You don’t want something falling in your lap. I’m glad the first one’s over with, and we can move on now and it gets more comfortable after this.
“After being in a playoff in Hawaii, coming close to winning there, I didn’t want to mess this one up. I had a great opportunity, and I wanted to try and take that.”
Els, a World Golf Hall of Famer, said he received a “tournament-saving drop” ruling on No. 16, when his tee shot landed on a gravel path near the retaining wall.
“I got a ruling and the gentleman said that I got relief, so I got relief,” Els said. “Then I hit a really poor second, but I two-putted from about 50 feet. Then I hit good shots coming in.”
Glen Day, Couples and Karlsson all tied for second at 14-under for the tournament.
Entering the final round with a one-shot lead over Scott McCarron (fifth, 13-under) and David Morland IV (tied for seventh, 11-under), Els birdied three of his first six holes, but he never extended his advantage beyond two strokes.
McCarron became the first to earn a share of the lead after he birdied No. 8, a hole at which Els missed a short putt for par.
The leaderboard would only become more crowded as the round continued. As many as five were tied for the top spot after Day made birdie at No. 16 to join Couples, Karlsson, Els and McCarron at 14-under.
Day made his fourth consecutive birdie at No. 17 to briefly jump into the lead alone at 15-under. Chasing the second win of his professional career, Day closed with a bogey after his second shot on No. 18 with a driver missed the green to the left.
Couples had a drop in front of his third shot on No. 18, but he mishit the flop shot, leaving it short. His birdie bid from the fringe went past the hole. The Newport Beach hometown favorite entered the clubhouse one shot back.
“I butchered the two par fives coming in,” Couples said. “Other than that, I had a really, really good round. You can’t really leave it short on [No.] 15, and that’s what I did. I’m not the greatest … little pitcher in the world.”
Karlsson’s third shot on the final hole was also his undoing. From the up-slope beyond the back of the green, it went well past the hole, and he could not sink the birdie putt.
Day had a seven-under round on Sunday, tying Scott Dunlap (ninth, 10-under) for the best round of the day. Couples and Karlsson each produced final rounds of five-under.
It was Els’ ability to stay steady and handle the pressure late that netted him the win. He responded to a bogey on No. 11 with three birdies the rest of the way.
Els received $270,000 as the first-place purse. As part of Hoag Classic tradition, he was also presented with a white lab coat as an honorary “Doctor of Golf.”
The win was the first for Els since the 2013 BMW International Open on the European Tour. It was his first in a PGA Tour-sanctioned tournament since the Open Championship in 2012, the final of his four major championships.
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