Ernie Els moved a step closer to the million-pound winner’s cheque and an unprecedented seventh world match-play title at Wentworth, following a hard-fought semifinal victory over Henrik Stenson of Sweden.
The South African will now play United States Open champion Angel Cabrera, who overcame Hunter Mahan two and one, despite a spirited fight back from the American, who at one point had been six holes down on the Argentinian.
Stenson and Mahan may have given way to their more experienced opponents, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest that both players are potential future winners of this title.
Visibly weary after his victory, Els described himself as really excited by the 36-hole final against Cabrera.
”It’s been a long tough week, but this is what you play for and it’s really satisfying to get there,” he said. ”I’m a little drained and I had to dig really deep to stay ahead of Henrik.”
Els, whose putting form deserted him in the morning round, rediscovered his touch on the greens in the afternoon. ”I was awful this morning on the greens, but I made a change at lunch time and really tried to push through the ball. You can’t afford to be off your game here. If you are, the course will bite you.”
The suspicion that Stenson’s form, so irresistible in the opening two days of the championship, was on the wane took root in the afternoon as Els’s resilience began to make the difference. Six hours into the match, the South African holed a five-foot putt on the seventh green to go ahead for the first time.
On the ninth green, a six-foot putt opened clear daylight between the pair as the six-time champion, who took just 31 on the outward nine, moved to three up, with nine to play. But Stenson lifted his game, striking back on the par-three 10th by holing a 23-foot putt for a birdie.
Nervousness and fatigue from both players became increasingly evident, until Els holed a telling putt on the 15th green, leaving him three ahead with three to play. The Swede responded gamely on the 16th by attacking the flag, but was unable to hole his 14-foot putt to win the hole.
”Mentally, this game tests you so much,” Els said. ”Today, with persistence, I got through it. I worked on my game all the time and that’s why I love 36-hole match play, because you have to play well all day.”
Six up after 22 holes, Cabrera had appeared on schedule to close out his battle with Mahan by mid-afternoon, but a sudden flurry of birdies from the American forced the Argentinian on to the back foot.
Mahan’s charge began on the fifth hole of the second round, immediately after Cabrera had gone six up on the American with a spectacular eagle three on the par-five fourth.
By the time the pair walked off the 10th green, the Argentinian’s nerves were fraying after Mahan had cut his lead to just two holes, following a purple patch with his putter.
”I played with Mahan in Augusta when he was an amateur, so he didn’t surprise me because he’s a very good player,” Cabrera said. ”I tried to stay focused. I needed to stay calm and I did.”
Mahan finally succumbed on the 17th green, his energies drained by Cabrera’s consistency. The American could only halve a hole he had to win, despite holing a birdie putt from 12 feet.
”He was just a little better than me today,” Mahan said. ”I felt like I played very well this afternoon — I was seven under par for 17 holes but I just got a little too far behind. I battled hard but I can’t be too upset. I just wasn’t as sharp as him or as good as him for the first 21 holes.” — Sapa-AFP