SOUTHAMPTON, Bermuda -- For most of this year’s PGA Grand Slam, Ernie Els couldn’t buy a putt. Then something clicked and he rattled off three consecutive birdies on Wednesday to turn David Toms’ seemingly inevitable victory march into a sideshow.
The South African finished with a 2-under par 69, 5 under for the tournament and a shot clear of Toms.
For most of the day, it didn’t look like it would finish that way.
Trailing by three shots with five holes left to play, Els had tried and failed several times to close the gap on the overnight leader. And even when he seemed to get his foot in the door, Toms slammed it shut just as quick.
Toms led for much of the tournament, and was 5 under par, and two shots clear, when the group reached the 12th green.
However, while Els was facing a 12-foot putt for birdie, Toms had hit his approach too long, and was off the back of the green. The 2001 PGA Championship winner has always had a great short game, though, and he proved it once again by chipping in for birdie.
Els then missed his attempt, and when he bogeyed 13, the gap had grown to three shots.
Not content with chipping in once in his round, Toms repeated the feat to rescue par at 14, and even though Els banged in his 15-foot birdie putt, the gap was still two shots.
"I thought when a guy does it (chip in) once, you’re thinking, good shot,” said Els. “When he does it twice in three holes, you're thinking maybe he's destined to win this thing."
The South African might have been forgiven for thinking that destiny was against him and that Toms, who was only called into the tournament less than a week beforehand, was certain to win. Toms, though, was scrambling by that point, and the fantastic chip shots were masking a game that was beginning to unravel after giving him the lead for 30 holes of the 36-hole event.
"To be honest, it took a bit of the pressure off me in a way where I free-wheeled it. I was just trying to see how close I could get to him," said Els. "Then he made a mistake on 15, I made birdie, he made bogey, and that was a big change."
Toms’ mistake came in finding the right-hand rough off the tee, and his attempt to get out only landed him in a pot bunker in front of the green.
Els, meanwhile, crushed his drive down the middle of the fairway, hit a sand wedge to about three feet and tapped in for an easy birdie. From three shots back, Els was level, and the momentum was firmly with the triple-major winner.
It swung completely in his favor on the next hole, when he drained a 35-footer from off the green for birdie, and Toms, who found sand from the tee, could only make par.
Still, the pair might have gone down the last level once more, if it wasn’t for Els’ now red-hot, putter.
Having found the sand off the tee on the par-5 17th, the South African then laid up, only to hit his third shot long. He duffed a chip, but then drained a snaking, downhill, 10-footer to rescue par.
While all this was happening, Toms was quietly setting himself up for a birdie putt, which he left agonizingly short. From then on, it was Els, not Toms, who was marching to victory.
"I was struggling on the greens a bit yesterday (Tuesday). I was struggling on the greens again today until let's say the last five, six holes when I found something in my putting stroke," said Els. “My speed came back and I made some really big putts. Those are the putts that I was missing for almost a day and a half, then they started dropping, and that was the difference.
"I was owed the one on 17 as well."
Toms didn’t think that he had lost a tournament that he had been leading for nearly 30 holes, more than Els, who played the back nine in 3 under, had won it.
"I guess I had the lead for the last, I don't know, 29, 30 holes," said Toms. "Sometimes that's really hard because everybody else is just kind of winging it. And on a day like today you're playing safe, trying to hit the smart shot, hanging in there as much as you can.
"I think early on if I would have made some of those birdie putts, I had some early on, but the back nine, you're hanging on. I felt like I didn't necessarily lose this thing. Ernie birdie-ing 14, 15 and 16, the putt he made on 16, I'd say he won the tournament,” he added. “For me, to go through those holes, play them under par would have been a pretty good feat in itself. He played them 3 under."
While Els and Toms were battling it out for first, Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer were having a battle of their own, to not finish last.
McDowell started the day 1 over, two shots ahead of Kaymer, and a birdie-birdie start gave him a faint of hope of catching the leaders.
However a bogey at No. 4, a double bogey at No. 7 and back-to-back bogeys at 13 and 14, saw him fall back to 3 over.
Kaymer, meanwhile, finally put some red on his scorecard, after dropping to 5 over, and birdies at 15 and 17 pulled him level with McDowell as they went down 18. A par apiece left them tied for third, which gave both $225,000 for their two days work.
"There's an element of pride kicks in," said McDowell, "No one wants to finish last, for sure.
"It was tough, when you're completely out of the mix," he explained. "It's very difficult to keep the pedal down, but we (McDowell and Kaymer) had a nice little tussle the last four or five holes. It was a lot of fun."