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Els Fends Off Challengers

With birdies on three of his last five holes, Ernie Els ended a long victory drought and might even have sent a message to his recent personal tormentor.

Els held off threats from Phil Mickelson and Stuart Appleby to win The International on Sunday.

Els picked up his first PGA Tour victory of the year after five runner-up finishes four of them behind Tiger Woods. In fact, since his last Tour win 18 months ago in the Nissan Open in February 1999, Els has finished second to Woods five times.

"For once I didn't mess it up or I didn't finish second or there wasn't a better golfer in the field," Els said. "It's always great to win a tournament anywhere, especially for me competing against you-know-who."

Els, 30, tried to downplay Woods' absence from Castle Pines Golf Club.

"I think it would have been very tough for him to beat me this week," Els said. "I had 34 points after two rounds, I tied the record score, nobody pushed me until the last nine holes. I think he would have had to play well to beat me.

"I can't get too cocky, but, yeah, let's try to make it a good horse race next time at Valhalla (in the PGA Championship).

"I definitely didn't want to let this one slip away. This win has given me confidence again. I'm glad I'm over that final hurdle. I think I might have some free sailing now."

Els now has won at least once on the tour in each of the past seven years, the longest active streak.

The South African with the syrupy swing saw his lead dwindle to 3 points on two occasions Sunday, but each time he responded with birdies. Then he underscored his determination to win with birdies on the 14th, 16th and 17th holes.

The unflappable Els had a final round of 8 points for a total of 48, equaling the tournament record set by Mickelson in 1997. Els had set tournament records for point totals after 36 and 54 holes.

Mickelson finished second with 44 points, and Appleby was third with 41.

The modified Stableford scoring system used in this event awards a player 5 points for an eagle, 2 points for a birdie, zero for a par, minus-1 for a bogey and minus-3 for a double bogey or worse.

Els, the world's second-ranked player, began the final round with an 8-point lead over Mickelson and Greg Norman, the largest lead entering Sunday's play since the tournament went to its current format in 1993.

Appleby, who was 10 points behind Els, made the first move, birdieing his first three holes to get to 36. When Els took a bogey on his third hole, the leawas reduced to 3 points.

Els immediately responded with a birdie on the difficult par-3 fourth hole. When Appleby birdied No. 7 to get to 38, the lead again was 3.

Mickelson joined Appleby at 38 with a birdie at the par-5 eighth hole, but Els countered with a birdie of his own, chipping to 5 feet and making the putt to move to 43 and a 5-point margin.

Appleby met disaster at the par-4 10th hole, taking a double bogey.

Els gave a point back with a bogey at 11, but his lead went back to 5 when Mickelson bogeyed No. 13 with a 3-putt.

On the par-5 14th, Mickelson's bid for eagle on a putt from the fringe missed, and he made birdie. But Els, who had driven into the rough, matched him with an 18-foot downhill birdie putt for 44 points to Mickelson's 39.

Els rifled a 7-iron to 5 feet at No. 16 and made birdie to get to 46.

Appleby, meanwhile, eagled the par-5 17th to get to 41, and Mickelson ran in a long putt for an eagle of his own at 17 for 44 points. But Els made a clinching birdie, pitching to inches after hitting his second shot just over the green.

"I felt like I had a pretty good shot all day," Mickelson said, "but Ernie made it difficult to make up those 8 points. When he birdied 16 and 17, those turned out to be pretty crucial points."

The sentimental favorite, 45-year-old Greg Norman, returning to the tour just five weeks after hip surgery, got off to a slow start with a bogey on the par-5 first hole that most golfers hope to birdie. He finally made a modest charge when he birdied Nos. 14, 15 and 17 to get to 38.

Sergio Garcia, the 20-year-old Spaniard who began the day with 30 points, also failed to make a move, losing 2 points on his front nine. He birdied the 11th hole but couldn't extricate himself from a bunker at No. 16 and absorbed a double bogey.

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