Always one of the game’s big beasts, the South African found his triumph tempered by news of an imminent reacquaintance with the biggest of them all as Tim Finchem, the tour’s commissioner, predicted that the announcement of Tiger Woods’ return date would come “pretty soon”.
Finchem, who had been trying to calm the conjecture over Woods’ comeback in an interview on NBC, only succeeded in stoking it further when he said: “I’m as excited as everybody else to see him back, I hope this spring – my sense is we’ll know pretty soon. Everybody’s done looking back at the circumstances that resulted in him stepping away from the game, and are focused on when he’s going to play golf.”
Few are less focused on that prospect than Finchem, to whom Woods owes a substantial debt of gratitude for his forbearance, and for allowing the world No 1 to deliver the infamous apology at the PGA’s Florida headquarters.
But the commissioner could be gratified by the spectacle of Els, who promises to renew his Woods rivalry with a vengeance, rediscovering the dexterous grace of his Nineties pomp with this dominant display on Doral’s Blue Monster course.
Els, now a youthful 40, was tested to the limit by Schwartzel, the 25 year-old pretender whom he recently hosted at his home near Miami, but responded with interest. He maintained a touch on the greens of pure silk, one-putting five consecutive holes from the 10th, culminating in an exquisitely-judged 25-footer to save par.
That reprieve appeared to signal the demise of his young opponent’s challenge, as Schwartzel began to suffer in stiff breezes, repeatedly leaking his drives to the right, straight into tree-lined trouble.
Padraig Harrington, who fleetingly threatened, watched his hopes recede with some wretched putting on the back nine.
“Ernie played flawless golf,” Schwartzel admitted. “Whenever anyone makes six birdies on a windy day like this, you’re almost bound to win.”
It was a scorecard surpassed, however, by Ian Poulter, the Hertfordshire harlequin. The Englishman was reluctant to bracket Sunday’s closing 64 with the round he considers the finest of his career: namely, his Sunday surge through the Open field at Birkdale in 2008, which brought him the closest he has yet come to grasping a first major. “That was pretty stunning,” he recalled, with his usual touching self-effacement.
In this way does the Englishman, who lives in Orlando, endear himself to an American audience ravenous for soundbites. He was puffed up to peacock proportions after a consummate eight-under-par round over Doral’s Blue Monster course, confirming impressions that he has found the form of his life in mobilising for the Masters, just three weeks away. It was just a pity he could not have discovered Sunday’s sublime touches last Friday, when he recorded an error-strewn 78.
Poulter, anxious for a break, has no pre-Augusta competition planned save for this week’s low-key Transitions event in Tampa and an appearance for his local Lake Nona club in the Tavistock Cup.
Another in need of a rest was Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who, having finished at seven over, disclosed that he was troubled by a back problem. “It will good just to take my mind off it, and not start off with negative thoughts in the morning,” the 20 year-old said.
He would do well to learn from his elders: such thoughts, one suspects, are no danger for Poulter, nor for Els.
- Telegraph (by Oliver Brown); Getty images
It was an unfortunate, if familiar situation for Els to find his efforts overshadowed by his nemesis, even after he completed this convincing four-stroke win over compatriot Charl Schwartzel with a final, bogey-free round of 66.