DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) - Ernie Els always wanted to win Jack Nicklaus' tournament. He made sure no one else had a chance Sunday at the Memorial, taking
only 11 putts over the final nine holes for a 6-under 66 and a four-shot victory.
Tied with Tiger Woods and Fred Couples midway through the final round, the Big Easy took the lead with a chip out of grass that covered his shoes to
within 5 feet for a birdie. Challenged by the Couples along the back nine of Muirfield Village, Els responded with one clutch putt after another,
including a 15-foot par save on the 16th hole to keep a two-shot lead. Els birdied the last two holes from inside 5 feet and finished at 18-under 270.
The victory, worth $945,000, also should be enough to move him past Vijay Singh at No. 2 in the world ranking Monday.
"It was a tough week, but a very rewarding week," Els said after shaking hands with Nicklaus on the 18th green.
Couples kept the pressure on to the very end, matching Els' birdie on the 17th. But he missed his drive on the final hole and took bogey, dropping him
to a 68.
"I was right there the whole time. That's a great feeling for me," Couples said. "I was second, but I lost to the best player by far. The back nine,
he just turned it on."
Woods continued to make big strides in his game heading into the U.S. Open. He was flawless on the front nine to give himself a chance, but his best
shots down the stretch were to save par. He failed to birdie the final 11 holes for a 69 that left him at 12-under 276.
"I hit the ball very well this week," said Woods, who has finished third, fourth and third in his last three events. "I'm playing better. This was
another step in the right direction."
After holding off Singh for the last six months in the world rankings, the next challenge comes from his oldest rival Els and it could be the
strongest of all. The 34-year-old South African won for the third time worldwide this year and has supreme control of his game. He made only one bogey
over the final 40 holes, and his putting was pure.
"My putter really saved me," Els said. "Freddie was pushing me. Tiger was pushing us on the front nine. Luckily, I was able to make some big putts."
Justin Rose of England (71) was fourth, followed by K.J. Choi of South Korea (72). Defending champion Kenny Perry birdied four straight holes late in
the round for a 69 to tie for sixth. British Open champion Ben Curtis also challenged early for the lead until he hit a few bumps on the back stretch.
Still, Curtis shot 72 to tie for eighth, his first top 10 since winning at Royal St. George's. Els had a two-shot lead to start the final round and
said he would check the leaderboard frequently, but he really didn't have to. He only had to watch Couples next to him, thrilling the crowd with a
birdie on No. 3 and another chip-in for birdie on No. 4.
Els could hear how Woods was doing. As he stood on the third tee box, Els heard an enormous cheer from the gallery surrounding the adjacent green and
knew it was for Woods, who had rolled in a tricky 20-foot birdie putt. Woods then gave himself two looks at eagle on the par-5s, swinging with such
confidence that he didn't even watch his 3-wood on No. 7 finish 35 feet from the hole. Woods made birdie on both of them, giving him a share of the
lead at 12 under. But it didn't last.
Els was in deep rough some 20 yards left of the seventh green, with not much room to the flag. He pitched beautifully to 5 feet for birdie, then ran
in a 10-footer on the next hole to take a two-shot lead. Woods faltered at about the same time. His 20-foot birdie putt on the ninth hole caught the
back left edge of the cup and spun out, and he missed from 8 feet on No. 10.
His most spectacular shot the rest of the way was to save par. After he hit a a 4-iron into the creek on No. 14, Woods flew the green into matted-down
rough and faced a chip that ran swiftly toward the water. From 50 feet away, he played a full flop that landed softly and dropped for par. It was
similar to his chip-in to save par on the same hole in 1999.
"The only difference is, I had the lead," Woods said. "This one kept me in the ball game."
The real challenge, though, came from Couples. After Els made an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 10 for a three-shot lead, Couples responded with
consecutive birdies to get within one shot, and he had a chance to share the lead when Els missed the 12th green and faced a 10-footer for par. He
made that one he made everything then holed a 30-footer on the next hole to restore his cushion.
"The biggest one of the tournament," Els said of the birdie on No. 13.
His last great escape came on the par-3 16th, when Els hit his tee shot into the gallery and followed that with a pedestrian chip to 15 feet. There
was a chance for a two-shot swing until Couples narrowly missed his birdie putt and Els drained the par putt again for a two-shot lead with two holes