As easy as it looked, Els's third official victory in the U.S. and 17th worldwide was probably his most nerve-racking. Els admitted that he had a long, worrisome night after a third-round 69 gave him a six-shot lead over Tim Herron. It didn't help that his lead and his score (13 under) were the same as Norman's going into the final round of April's Masters.
"I thought about it quite a bit last night," Els said on Sunday. "I know what can happen in this game. I knew the challenge was going to be mental."
With a lot to lose, Els instead emphatically ended the whisper campaign. He birdied two of the first three holes, rebounded from a pair of three-putts with birdies at 9, 11 and 13, and stepped to the 15th tee with a massive 10-stroke lead. The win lifted a weight from his broad shoulders. "It's nice to know that if you buckle down, you can still do big things," he said. "This has got me going. I'm really looking forward to the majors."
In a sense Westchester was like a major, from its classic Northeast country club setting, to the four-inch rough and hard greens, to the stifling heat, to its date a week before the real thing. In only a few years Westchester has gone from being a run-of-the-mill Tour event in the hassle capital of the continent to an elite tournament proud of its stature as U.S. Open Junior.
"I can't think of any regular Tour event that is set up this hard," said Corey Pavin, who finished tied for ninth in his final preparation for his defense at Oakland Hills. "It's a great test for your overall game. Placement of the ball is key, and par is a good score. The more we play in these conditions, the better players we'll be."
By winning at Westchester, Els is back in the spotlight, a problematic position for someone who sounds profoundly ambivalent about fame. For example last week he expressed sympathy for U.S. Amateur and NCAA champ Tiger Woods, saying, "When he turns pro, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes." He referred to the increased attention he received after winning at Oakmont as "the pain barrier." At the same time he seems resolved to not let such annoyances compromise his gift. "I'm not really for being a celebrity, but I think I can find a way to get through it," he says. "I'd like to know that I gave it my best shot."
His girlfriend of 3� years, Leizl Wehmeyer, doesn't think the demands of winning will sidetrack Els. "The attention might make him feel uncomfortable at the time, but once it's not there, he wants it again," she said during a lull in Els's victory celebration on the veranda at Westchester. "He's not quick to admit it, but it's like something that he lives on. He'll never let up because of pressure. He wants it too badly. He has never said to me, after a victory, 'That was enough.' He's always said, T have a lot more to go for.' This is his dream. He knows what goes along with it. He knows."
Maybe, after all, good ol' Ernie knows where he's headed better than anyone else.