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Easy Does It at Mercedes

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- With Tiger Woods out of the office, Ernie Els had to work a little Sunday at the Mercedes Championships to grab a quick million-dollar jump on the worlds No. 1.
With the trade winds laying down again, Els carded his highest round of the tournament, a 6-under 67. Still it was more than enough to hold off K.J. Choi, who wasnt able to duplicate Saturdays course-record 62 and had an even-par 73.
Els watched a four-stroke lead dwindle to one, but birdied four of his final five holes to stroll into the winners circle.
Els finished the season-opener at 31-under-par 261, a PGA Tour 72-hole record in relation to par.
'It's an unbelievable week for me,' Els said. 'With no wind, I felt totally in control.'
John Huston won the 1998 Sony Open at 28-under par, as did Mark Calcavecchia in the 2001 Phoenix Open; though, Joe Durant was 29-under through the first four rounds of the 01 Bob Hope, a 90-hole event.
David Duval held the previous 72-hole tournament record at 26-under.
Choi missed a four-foot birdie putt at the last to share second place with Rocco Mediate at 23-under, eight behind Els. Mediate shot 10-under 63 Sunday.
The victory was especially gratifying considering Els last two trips to Kapalua.
He lost to Woods in a dramatic playoff in 2000, and then blew a four-stroke lead midway through the 2001 tournament in losing to Jim Furyk.
'I didn't think anything owed me, but it certainly gave me a lot back this week,' he said. 'The golf course gave me everything back. Now that I lost by close margins, this makes it feel much better.'
Els has now won $3 million in his last two tournaments played. He captured the $2 million first-place prize in the unofficial Nedbank Challenge in November.
He won in Sun City using Taylor Made clubs. This time, for the first time, he used his new set of Titleists.
Despite being among the games elite since winning his first U.S. Open in 1994, Els has never topped the PGA Tour money list. His best finish was third in 2000.
Woods has won the money title the last four years, but is out of action for the first month and a half while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.
'I didn't miss him,' Els said with a laugh. 'He can take another month off.'
But even if Woods had been in the field this week, he would have had difficulty keeping pace with Els, who opened in 64-65-65 on the par-73 defenseless layout.
Thanks to a double bogey on the 17th Saturday, Els entered the final round on the Plantation Course with a slight edge over Choi.
The two were but a blur to the rest of the field, however, as no one was within four strokes of the South Korean.
The difference was still two as the final pairing played the par-4 sixth, where Els made birdie and Choi made bogey. The advantage was instantly four, and all Els had to do from then on was to keep his footing.
He stumbled with a bogey at the par-4 seventh, though, when he pulled his approach shot long and left of the green.
He then had to make a 12-footer for par at the eighth when his tee ball landed in the back, right greenside bunker.
For the first time all week, he failed to birdie the par-5 ninth. And when Choi birdied 10 and 11 the lead was down to one.
'I said to Ricky (his caddie), 'We just need to step it up, start playing our game, and really go after the course again,'' Els said.
Els gave himself a little breathing room by making birdie at 12, took a deeper breath when Choi missed a six-footer for par at 13, and then fully exhaled after a two-shot swing at 14.
Els made birdie, Choi made bogey, and only the record book remained.
'It kind of turned very quickly, like it did yesterday afternoon when I was looking like maybe taking a five- or six-shot lead, then I made those mistakes coming in. Today it went the other way,' Els said.
After hitting a 400-yard drive, Els two-putted from 10 feet on the par-5 15th to get to 29-under. He made a third straight birdie at 16, and finished with a birdie on the par-5 18th.
For the week, he played the par-5s in 16-under. But perhaps more impressively, he played the par-4s in 15-under.
'This golf course was just perfect for me this week,' he said in a vast understatement.
Related Links:
  • Ernie Els Bio
  • Full-field scores from the Mercedes Championships
  • Full coverage of the Mercedes Championships