Ernie Els hardly ever catches a break at the Match Play Championship.
When the first edition was held in 1999 at La Costa, he was trailing Paul Azinger going to the 18th hole when his tee shot caught the worst of lies in the rough.
And it didn't get much better after that.
He lost in the second round a year later to Bob Estes by missing a 4-foot putt on the last hole. He once blew a 3-up lead against Tom Lehman and missed a 4-foot putt on the 19th hole. And even the Big Easy could only laugh the year Phil Tataurangi buried a 25-foot putt on the bumpy greens of La Costa to force extra holes and beat him in 20.
Just last year, Els lost on the last hole at Dove Mountain by missing from 5 feet to Freddie Jacobson.
So perhaps this year is a small measure of justice. Counting the conceded putts, Els had a 75 on Wednesday and a 73 on Thursday (local times). And somehow, the 44-year-old South African is still in the tournament.
The latest win was a big one. Els was 1 down with two holes to play against US Open champion Justin Rose and beat him in 20 holes.
"I don't know if I can say I enjoy it," Els said. "But it's a different experience every time. It's a battle. Sometimes you're up for it. I found myself at times not being quite up for it. ... It's a matter of who is going to gut it out. And that's, I guess, the nature of match play, is how much you want it.
"But in this tournament, I haven't done that well. Hopefully, I can go further now."
Rose made a bogey on the 17th hole to square their match. Then Els faced a tricky 6-foot par putt to extend the match on the 18th.
"I just guessed right," Els said. "For once, I made it. I've missed it many other times."
On the first extra hole, No 1, he stood on the crest of the hill and watched Rose hit his approach to 10 feet. Els hit his shot in nearly the exact location, and then poured it into the cup for birdie. Rose made his birdie putt, too.
But it looked as though the ghosts of Match Play returned to play tricks with Els' mind. With Rose in the bunker left of the green on the par-5 second hole, Els smashed a 5-iron right into the sun. He couldn't see where it was going, but thought it was good.
It wasn't. The ball curled around the edge of the bunker and stayed on the slope of the brown collar.
"An impossible shot," Els said.
He thought about lofting a chip onto the green and let it ride a ridge behind the cup back toward the hole for a reasonable look at birdie. He caught it slightly thin. The ball went into the bank of the green and trickled down to 4 feet, a tremendous outcome.
Rose left his shot in the bunker, and Els made the birdie putt to advance.
"It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime shots, really," Els said.
He was due for one of those.
Next up for Els is another major champion, Jason Dufner.
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