MARANA, Ariz. (AP) — Ernie Els hardly ever catches a break at the Match Play Championship.
When the first edition was held in 1999 at La Costa, he was trailing Paul Azinger going to the 18th when his tee shot caught the worst of lies in the rough.
And it didn’t get much better after that.
He lost in the second round a year later to Bob Estes by missing a 4-foot putt on the last hole. He once blew a 3-up lead against Tom Lehman and missed a 4-foot putt on the 19th hole. And even the Big Easy could only laugh the year Phil Tataurangi buried a 25-foot putt on the bumpy greens of La Costa to force extra holes and beat him in 20.
Just last year, Els lost on the last hole at Dove Mountain by missing from 5 feet on the last hole to Freddie Jacobson.
So perhaps this year is a small measure of justice. Counting the conceded putts, Els had a 75 on Wednesday and a 73 on Thursday. And somehow, the 44-year-old South African is still in the tournament.
The latest win was a big one. Els was 1 down with two holes to play against U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and beat him in 20 holes.
“I don’t know if I can say I enjoy it,” Els said. “But it’s a different experience every time. It’s a battle. Sometimes you’re up for it. I found myself at times not being quite up for it. … It’s a matter of who is going to gut it out. And that’s, I guess, the nature of match play, is how much you want it.
“But in this tournament, I haven’t done that well,” Els said. “Hopefully, I can go further in the tournament now.”
Two days have served as a reminder that hope is fleeting.
Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan have made it look relatively easy. Both won their matches Thursday – Kuchar only won two of the 18 holes in a 1-up win over Ryan Moore – and advanced to the third round for the fourth consecutive year.
He has trailed in 33 of the 37 holes he played this week at Dove Mountain, and he has managed to win both time. McDowell was 3-down to Gary Woodland with three holes remaining in the opening round, forced overtime and beat him with a birdie. On Thursday, he was 2 down with four holes remaining against Hideki Matsuyama and beat him with a par on the 18th hole.
“I thought I was dead and buried, both times,” McDowell said.
Els looked to be in the same boat.
He was one hole behind with two holes remaining when Rose made a bogey on the 17th hole to square the match. That’s when Els showed, at least Thursday, that he wants it.
First, the Big Easy faced a tricky 6-foot par putt to extend the match on the 18th hole.
“I’ve hit that putt so many times. I just guessed right,” Els said. “For once, I made it. I’ve missed it many other times.”
On the first extra hole, No. 1, he stood on the crest of the hill and watched Rose hit his approach to 10 feet. Els hit his shot in nearly the exact location, and then poured it into the cup for birdie. Rose made his birdie putt, too.
But it looked as though the ghosts of Match Play returned to play tricks with Els’ mind. With Rose in the bunker left of the green on the par-5 second hole, Els smashed a 5-iron right into the sun. He couldn’t see where it was going, but figured it was good.
It wasn’t. The ball curled around the edge of the bunker and stayed on the slope of the brown collar.
“An impossible shot,” Els said.
He thought about lofting a chip onto the green and let it ride a ridge behind the cup back toward the hole for a reasonable look at birdie. He caught it slightly thin. The ball went into the bank of the green and trickled down to 4 feet, a tremendous outcome.
Rose left his shot in the bunker, and Els made the birdie putt to advance.
“It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime shots, really,” Els said.
He was due for one of those.
Next up for Els is another major champion, Jason Dufner, who rallied to beat Matteo Manassero.
In other matches Friday:
- Sergio Garcia, the top seed remaining at No. 5, takes on Rickie Fowler, who already has beaten match-play wizard Ian Poulter and Jimmy Walker, one of the hottest players in golf.
- Harris English took out Rory McIlroy in 19 holes and now plays hometown favorite Jim Furyk, who went to Arizona.
- McDowell next gets Mahan, a rematch from their Ryder Cup duel at Wales that McDowell won to give Europe the victory. “A lot of water under the bridge since 2010,” McDowell said. “He’s a quality player. He’s got a great record around this golf course. He’s going to be a tough nut to crack.”
- Jordan Spieth, who had the shortest day in the second round with a 5-and-4 win over Thomas Bjorn, faces defending champ Kuchar.
And then there’s Bubba Watson, making his way across Europe. He already has beaten players from Finland (Mikko Ilonen) and Sweden (Jonas Blixt), and next faces Victor Dubuisson of France.
“I could care less who it is,” Watson said. “I just want to win.”
Fifteen other guys share his sentiments.