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Els Sweats Out American Express Victory

THOMASTOWN, Ireland (AP) _ Emotionally spent from a Grand Slam season of heartache, Ernie Els reasserted himself as a major force Sunday by outlasting Thomas Bjorn in a brilliantly played duel in the cold rain in the American Express Championship. He closed with a 3-under 69 for a one-shot victory and his first World Golf Championship.

``Everybody knows what I've been through this summer,'' Els said. ``I had a lot of pressure on me, and I think I showed that I didn't want to lose.''

The Big Easy had every reason to feel sorry for himself.

He lost the Masters when Phil Mickelson birdied the last hole. He played in the final group of the U.S. Open and shot 80. He lost the British Open in a four-hole playoff against unheralded Todd Hamilton. And a bogey on the final hole knocked him out of a playoff at the PGA Championship.

``I wanted to forget about the majors, the near misses,'' Els said. ``I needed to get that out of my system and start over. Otherwise, I'm going to get left behind. I don't want to do that. I want to win tournaments, and the only way you can do it is to move forward.''

Els took one small leap with his fourth victory of the year.

He moved past Tiger Woods to No. 2 in the world ranking, and the 34-year-old South African now has yet another chance to reach No. 1 by the end of the year.

Els and Vijay Singh, who did not play this week because of the latest hurricane in Florida, are scheduled to play the next two tournaments in Europe.

``The game is on,'' Els said.

The game at Mount Juliet was on from the opening hole, and never let up until Bjorn failed to make a 40-foot birdie putt on the final hole. That allowed Els to two-putt for bogey from 15 feet to finish at 18-under 270.

Els won $1.2 million and set the single-season earnings record on the European tour, topping $4 million.

The majors over, this was a consolation prize.

Bjorn might have felt the same way in defeat. Four months ago in Ireland, the 33-year-old Dane walked off the course during the opening round at the European Open and said he was mentally unfit to play, his confidence so low that even the largest greens looked like the tiniest of targets.

He gave Els all he could handle in the bone-chilling rain, shooting a 68 and staying within one shot most of the day.

``This is a massive step in the right direction,'' Bjorn said. ``This is a sign for me that, yeah, I can play with the big boys again. I came up one shot short of Ernie, but I came up a long way ahead of everybody else. And that gives me a good indication of where my golf is going.''

David Howell of England, who played in the final threesome, was a bystander to a terrific battle. He shot 71 and finished third, five shots behind Els.

Darren Clarke holed out a 110-yard wedge for eagle to fire up the Irish gallery on a gray afternoon with the temperature in the low 50s. He wound up with a 68 and tied for fourth with Sergio Garcia (70).

Woods now is without a stroke-play title for the first time since he won the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, the fifth tournament of his career. He overcame a back injury that improved as the week went on, but he couldn't keep pace with the leaders on the weekend and closed with a 70 to finish eight shots behind.

``I'm happy to have played all four rounds,'' Woods said. ``I don't know how I did it, but I got a top 10 out of it.''

Woods finished ninth, and slipped to No. 3 in the world for the first time since May 1999.

Next up could be wedding bells. Irish newspapers reported during the week that Woods and Elin Nordegren are getting married in Barbados, a report that he refused to confirm.

Asked if he was ready for some heat on a Caribbean island, Woods said, ``I'm ready to go diving. I'm ready to hop in that water and shoot some fish.''

Els clearly is ready to hop into the race for No. 1, a vast improvement from two months ago. His outlook is even stronger considering the tussle he faced from Bjorn.

Bjorn nearly holed out his approach on the opening hole, but Els showed he was up to the challenge with an 18-foot birdie before Bjorn tapped his in. Both made birdie putts of 15 feet from opposite sides of the hole on No. 3.

Bjorn kept pushing, keeping within one shot of the lead.

The tournament effectively ended on the par-5 17th, when Bjorn ran his 70-foot eagle putt about 10 feet by the cup and missed it coming back. Els was short of the green, pitched to 6 feet and made the birdie putt for a two-shot lead that gave him the cushion he needed.

``Thomas kept me on my toes right to the last shot,'' Els said. ``It was a very tough day, but right now I'm so happy. It's been a tough summer _ a good summer, but a tough summer. And this really caps it off for me.''
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