Els makes it 2 wins in a row

ORLANDO: Two tournaments, two victories, and the Masters is only two weeks away.

Ernie Els is starting to believe this could be a big year.

First came a four-shot victory at Doral that ended two years without winning, the longest drought of his career. Then came a two-shot victory at Bay Hill when Els returned from a rain delay to make four tough pars at Bay Hill to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

"I want to make this a special year, especially after these two wins," Els said after closing with a 1-under 71 Monday to hold off Kevin Na and Edoardo Molinari. "But I still have a lot of work left, and there are a lot of majors left. And that's going to be fun now."

Els became the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001 to win twice on the Florida Swing, and he won back-to-back tournaments for the first time since the start of the 2003 season.

His victory, the 18th of his career, came with $1.08 million, a salute from the tournament host and a blue blazer. Standing next to Palmer at the trophy presentation, he tugged on the blue blazer and said, "I'd like to put his jacket in some dye — some green dye."

Els was to fly to Augusta National on Tuesday for a practice round before going to the Houston Open, his final start before the Masters. Not many figured him for a contender at the start of the year, especially coming off his first year without a victory anywhere in the world since his first year as a pro in 1990.

It didn't help that he turned 40 in October, another sign that perhaps his best golf might be behind him.

"I know a lot of guys basically have written me off," Els said. "And a lot of guys probably said it was a fluke in Miami. It was hard work this week. I'll just keep working hard. There's still a lot of flaws in my game that I've got to figure out and get right. I know I'm never going to play the game perfectly, but I can still improve."

Two straight wins and he's looking for improvement?

For sure, the Big Easy has a way of making it too hard on himself, and such was the case at Bay Hill. He was coasting toward a victory, leading by five shots with six holes to play Sunday, until hitting into the water (double bogey) and sand (bogey) on consecutive holes, then having to wait some 22 hours to resume the final hour because of rain.

Even when he returned Monday, he had to battle harder than he wanted through the final four holes.

Leading by two shots over Na, he pulled his approach to the 15th green and immediately faced a 6-foot par putt. Els made it to keep the lead, although he noticed ahead of him that Na had reached the par-5 16th in two for an easy birdie. The lead was down to one.

Els then hit his tee shot into the trees, had to lay up, and played conservatively to some 25 feet behind the hole for a par. He was on the 17th tee when he saw Na narrowly miss an 18-foot birdie putt that would have given him a share of the lead.

Els hit his 4-iron into a plugged lie in the face of the bunker short of the green, then held the club behind his head, feeling as though this tournament was about to get away from him. But he blasted out beautifully to just outside 6 feet for another clutch par. When he reached the final tee, the groan from the gallery indicated that Na had made bogey on the 18th.

Na, who slung his ball into the water after missing an 8-foot par putt on the last hole, closed with a 69. He shared second with Molinari, who made a 50-foot birdie on the 17th and saved par on the final hole for a 69.

Molinari made $528,000, enough for him to take up special temporary membership on the PGA Tour.

Els finished at 11-under 277.

"It's an amazing feeling, really," Els said of his consecutive wins. "It can be one of the toughest games, cruelest games in the world. And then you sit here, it's one of the nicest games. I could have been very despondent after this if I didn't get the ball up-and-down on 15, 17, 18. But somehow, I got the ball up-and-down, so I'm sitting here so very grateful."

So it is with Els, a massive talent who still displays some fragile moments.

He lost most of an eight-shot lead against Woods at Doral in 2002 before steadying himself to win. Later that summer, he squandered a three-shot lead on the back nine at Muirfield in the British Open, only to deliver a clutch birdie and win a four-man playoff.

Is it a weakness that he makes mistakes to give everyone else a chance? Or a strength that he is resilient enough to win?

Probably a little of both.

"I can be annoyed at that — I am, actually, annoyed by it, especially this week. Because I let the guys in by a very silly mistake," Els said. "I'm a different player, a different person. My head is ticking a little differently than it's been."

He became the first multiple winner on the PGA Tour this year and moved to No. 7 in the world ranking.

"Obviously, I haven't won for such a long time," Els said. "And now to be able to feel like I can tee it up and play with these boys, it feels good."