Els' triumph brings sense of relief

DORAL, Fla. -- He might suggest otherwise, despite being a straight shooter who can be brutally honest when it comes to the golf demons known to have danced around in his head.

But Ernie Els needed this.

And the victory likely comes with more relief than joy.

"Today was going to be a big day," said Els, 40, after capturing the WGC-CA Championship at Doral on Sunday. "I knew it. I had my own pressure. Nobody had to put any more pressure on myself, because I knew how big it was today."

Els won by a comfortable 4-stroke margin Sunday over countryman Charl Schwartzel after it appeared the tournament would go down to the wire.

The Big Easy shot a 6-under-par 66 at Doral's Blue Monster course to win for the first time on the PGA Tour in two years.

In the process, the three-time major champion declared his relevancy again.

"I've said for the last few years, he's still got it in him," said Ricci Roberts, Els' longtime caddie, who was working for him for the first time this year. "And I think he's still got two or three majors in him, never mind winning other golf tournaments.

"I just think it was a massive factor getting over this first hurdle, and that was getting a win under your belt. The longer between wins the more difficult it gets. This was his first win since Honda. It's massive for him."

Els last victory came two years ago at the Honda Classic, and soon after that, he and his wife, Liezl, announced that their son, Ben, now 7, had autism.

Whether that public disclosure and the subsequent push to create awareness caused his golf to suffer is the subject of conjecture, but Els undoubtedly has slipped off the big stage since that victory.

He had no victories anywhere last year -- a first since age 20 -- and he came into this year ranked 17th in the world, the lowest since he first started playing the PGA Tour in 1994 as a 24-year-old with no status.

Now the South African is set to jump to No. 8 in the world after winning for the 17th time on the PGA Tour. It was his 61st worldwide victory and pushed him to the top of the all-time European Tour money list with more than 24 million Euros, roughly $33.7 million. (The win counts on the European Tour as well, giving him 25 on that circuit.)

"All credit to Ernie," said Schwartzel, 25, who won twice earlier this year on the European Tour and has looked up to Els since his junior golf days. "He played flawless golf today. Whenever anyone makes six birdies and no bogeys on a windy day like this, you're almost bound to win."

For a good part of the afternoon, it appeared that Els would not be able to shake Schwartzel, who birdied four of five holes from the sixth through the 10th to forge a tie.

But Els never fell behind, and when he holed a 25-footer for par at the 14th, you had the feeling it was his day.

And those days have been fleeting in recent years, as Els won on the PGA Tour for just the second time since 2004.

"This means so much," Els said. "I didn't think it was ever going to happen again."

"He's worked really hard to get where he is," said his manager, Chubby Chandler. "This is all part of rehabilitating his game. He's got to feel it and get excited and be nervous. If you think about it, he hasn't been nervous for the right reason for about five years. He's been nervous for the wrong reasons. He's been apprehensive-nervous. Now he's excited-nervous. It's the right nervous."

Liezl Els was a different kind of nervous. She followed her husband for all 18 holes Sunday and didn't feel a sense of relief until she saw Ernie's approach shot land safely on the 18th green.

She recounted that after last week's Honda Classic, where Els finished a lackluster 67th, he returned to their Jupiter, Fla., home and went straight to the driving range. After an outing the next day at Seminole, he did it again, finding something in his setup -- moving the ball back in his stance -- that finally started to click.

"He's very driven and [as] dedicated to the game as the first day he came out," Liezl Els said. "Because everyone calls him the Big Easy, it's easy to forget how hard he works and how much he wants it."

That had not always been apparent to outsiders. Els' sauntering stride and unassuming nature often sent the wrong signal: that he didn't care, wasn't driven, didn't work hard enough.

And that 40th birthday wasn't helping. It meant little to Els, but alarm bells go off when you get to that age and success is not as prevalent as in the past.

It has been, amazingly, eight years since Els won his last major championship, the British Open at Muirfield. The victories, anywhere, have been sparse recently. And there were putting woes, always a cause for concern as players get older.

Els suggested he would not celebrate like the last time he won, when he said he got carried away and cocky. Now it is a matter of keeping the victory in perspective, building on it, finding more success down the road.

He didn't call it a relief, but you could sense a burden lifted -- and the belief that there are bigger things to accomplish.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.