Els joins elite company

Ernie Els (left) and Seve Ballesteros, after Els won the World Matchplay Trophy. Els has now won the title five times, equalling Ballesteros' and Gary Player's record. — Pic. AFP-Ernie Els (left) and Seve Ballesteros, after Els won the World Matchplay Trophy. Els has now won the title five times, equalling Ballesteros' and Gary Player's record. — Pic. AFP

When Ernie Els was six up against Thomas Bjorn with seven to play in the final of the HSBC World Matchplay at Wentworth, everyone thought that was that.

When Ernie Els was six up against Thomas Bjorn with seven to play in the final of the HSBC World Matchplay at Wentworth, everyone thought that was that. In the event, Bjorn kept the match alive with an eagle at the 12th and an ace at the 14th before succumbing at the next four & three.

Els, who joined Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros in having five World Matchplay titles, said: "It's a wonderful event to win. There's so much history, so many great champions." He then embarked on a litany of names including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

The club hierarchy suspected that the Wentworth club championship had never involved two Wentworth Estate residents, yet this World Matchplay was being contested by players who not only live on the estate but on the same 16th hole. In addition, they are good friends. Neither Els nor Bjorn made any secret of how tough it was to be playing the other. "Usually," said Els, "you want to go out there and get in a certain mood with an opponent but that's hard to do when the opponent is a friend."

Bjorn spoke of how, in a run-of-the-mill strokeplay event, they would want each other to do well. "To have to face each other was difficult, though you have to be able to put such things aside," he said.

At lunch, John Paramor, the chief referee, had commented on the extent to which the players' emotions were so much more to the fore in matchplay. He saw flashes of anger and anxiety, while he would no doubt have noted that moment at the short 10th when Els looked embarrassed at clocking up yet another hole to go to six up. Bjorn, who had conceded the ninth after hauling his drive into trouble, had hit into the cavernous dip on the right and caught a branch with his recovery.

It was perhaps because he was so conscious of whom he was playing that Els missed the six-footer he needed to go seven up at the 11th. Whatever, the ensuing half prompted Bjorn to embark on enough of a comeback to make the day for the crowd.

On the 14th tee, Els had watched Bjorn's swing and divot and thought to himself: "That's perfect." Then he heard the cheers, which told him that his verdict was 100 per cent. "They'll remember this week for that shot," said the winner, modestly.

Bjorn, who gave the �37,000 Toyota prize to his caddie, Billy Foster, who had persuaded him to take a four iron instead of a three, had turned round to Els and said a cheerful: "Follow that!"

Els had it that Bjorn's shot told everything about "the character of these guys." He was reminded, in particular, how Tim Clark, five down with six to play against him in the second round, had stretched that match to the home green. Els, mind you, hit some glorious shots of his own, with the drive he thumped from the tee of the 571-yard 17th in a class of its own. Though it was into the wind, he was able to use a two iron for his second en route to the birdie, which took him back to three up — a lead he took into lunch.

At the end of the day, Seve Ballesteros reiterated his belief that Els had even more talent than Tiger Woods and could become the world No. 1. Els, when it was mentioned to him, did his best to alter the course of the conversation. Ballesteros, he said, had been hard on him as well, more than once suggesting that he had to get tougher, mentally.

He admitted that where, in 2000, he had finished second to Woods six times and was maybe too aware of the American, he was now more focused on his own game and the chance of taking it to a new level.

Bjorn said: "There are times in your career when you get the chance to do something a little special and this was one of them. It's been a season of near misses."

He felt he needed to improve "a little bit of everything" and those who know him suspect that he will. Few work harder.

Where Bjorn collected �400,000, Els bagged �1 million. Did Els see it as an obscene sum of money?

The South African nodded, enthusiastically, before saying that it did not worry him.