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Ernie Els shot a 4-under 66 Sunday but it wasn't enough to catch Tiger Woods. (Photo: Getty Images)
Ernie Els shot a 4-under 66 Sunday but it wasn't enough to catch Tiger Woods. (Photo: Getty Images)

Els' charge has him charged up about his game again

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He made a spirited run at Tiger Woods on Sunday, but Ernie Els couldn't quite pull it off. Instead, the Big Easy will play back in his mind over and over again three shots that thwarted made the difference between victory and defeat.

By Melanie Hauser, Correspondent

TULSA -- He'll play those three shots over in his mind for a little while.

The putt at the ninth. Another at the 11th. And that oops of a tee shot at 16.

Nail those and it's game on. But Ernie Els didn't.

Yes, he threw out a closing 66. Finished third at this 89th PGA Championship, which, added to his tie for fourth three weeks ago at Carnoustie, tells us the Big Easy is this close to being back.

But when he needed to step up and really put the pressure on Tiger Woods, when he had a chance to scare the pants off the best player in the world once again, he didn't. He was too soft on a downhill birdie at the ninth, too firm on a 6-foot, left-to-right breaker at the 11th.

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And 16? "It was just a bad swing," he said. "I was trying to hit a hard cut off the bunker, and then I didn't quite finish my backswing and flipped at it a little and hit a poor tee shot there.

"But as I said before, those three shots, you know, probably cost me. But, you know, still played a pretty good round."

Good enough that he walked away knowing he's right there. That the 2005 knee injury is behind him; that changes in equipment and his caddie are jelling; that another run like the one that left him thinking he was closing in on 1 1/2 in the world is almost a reality, not just a distant hope.

"My motivation is to get the best out of me again, you know, and I was this close (inches) in 2004," Els said. "Obviously then my injury (a boating accident) came and the rest is history. But I was that close to being No. 1 and deserving No. 1, because I came close to winning two or three majors.

"But, you know, that's history. I want to just get to that level and get better. That's what I want to do. I want to play this type of golf day in and day out in majors. And it's saying a lot, even doing it with Tiger, with the crowd, with everything, that's the type of golf I want to play whoever I play with."

He told us this is a three-year deal, that his recovery and the changes weren't going to happen overnight.

"Some things just take a little bit more time and I just want to still believe that I can become No. 1 and I can play the way I want to play at the end of the day," he said.

Two U.S. Open titles, one Open Championship. Those three straight runner-ups to open the 2000 season; six in his career. A total of 29 top-10 finishes in 61 professional majors. A combined 38 victories world-wide (15 PGA TOUR; 23 European Tour).

That should tell you just about all you want to know about golf's most global player. And the only other thing? Well, there's the way he's played the last month.

He was a bogey-down-the-stretch away from winning the Barclays Scottish Open. And when he tied for fourth at the Open Championship, you knew his game was coming around.

Now this.

Els started the day six shots behind Tiger and shot a brilliant 32 on the front. He had the chance to close the gap to two shots at the ninth, but missed that putt. By the time he pitched to 3 feet and birdied the 10th, Tiger had already added back-to-back birdies of his own to go up by four shots.

And when Tiger struggled early on the back, Els again had a chance to pressure him on 16, but his tee shot found the trees, then, with 97 yards to the pin and a pitching wedge in his hand, he hit it to 35 feet and missed the par putt.

Yes, he laughed Saturday night that if he was a fan he would have bet his house on Tiger winning No. 13. At the same time, he said, as a player he wouldn't go there. That he would never give up.

He didn't. The 37-year-old South African changed caddies last year and changed equipment to Callaway just before the Masters. Earlier this year, he won the South African Airlines Open -- his second win since the injury -- and proceeded to add a combined 11 top 10s. Now, he's fourth in the world with a bullet.

"There's a lot of good in my game," he said. "As I just said, you know, I'm not quite there where I think I can be. But if I get up to this next level where I want to be, maybe I can at least give him a real go, a run for his money. Because somebody needs to step up; he's playing some awesome golf."

If not before, you might expect Els to face Tiger in the singles at the Presidents Cup. At least, Els said, the team will probably try to throw him out there against Tiger.

But the way both of them are playing? The playoffs for the FedExCup begin in a mere two weeks and the opening round will be played at Westchester Country Club, where Els has won back-to-back (1996, 1997) and finished second once (1994).

"We've got the FedEx thingy coming up; I'd like to play well there and finish my year off here in America," he said. "I need to start, you know, basically winning tournaments, and that will create more confluence, and winning becomes almost a habit. Look at Tiger."

He's close. He makes two of those three shots Sunday and it's game on.

"But to come back from six back against the world No. 1 was always going to be tough to do, but, you know, I gave it a good shot," he said. "And the way I played today in the final day and the way I played at the Open in the final day, that's the way I want to play in major championships."

When he does, game on.

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