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The sony open has a history of fluky finishes. In 1983 Isao Aoki bounced his approach into the cup on the 72nd hole to become the first Japanese player to win on the PGA Tour. Last year John Cook lost a chance at victory when his tee shot on the 71st hole was ruined mid-swing by a ringing cellphone. This time around the tournament offered a double whammy of weirdness, discombobulating both Ernie Els and Aaron Baddeley.
Tied for the lead at 16 under on the jinxed 17th, Els was lining up a long birdie putt when Baddeley asked if he should move his ball marker. Els waved him off, then putted directly over the coin—"a freakin' English pound," Els said with a laugh later—and watched his ball pop in the air and bounce to a halt just short of the hole. "A total amateur mistake [on my part]," Els said. Baddeley then stepped up to his three-footer for par, but as he was taking the putter back, he was distracted by the slamming door of a nearby Port-A-Potty. He backed off the putt but never regained his focus, slamming his ball through the break and out of the hole.
Baddeley pulled even at the last with a rousing birdie, but the fates were already aligned against him. On the second playoff hole Els rammed in a stunning 43-footer for birdie from off the green, and Baddeley's answer, from 20 feet, stopped a half inch short. Coupled with his record victory a week earlier at the Mercedes Championships, Els became the first player since Steve Jones in 1989 to win the first two events on the schedule and has collected $1.81 million in two weeks, a figure mat would have topped the final money list as recently as 1996. "It's a crazy game," Els said on Sunday.
Indeed, after going 31 under at the Mercedes, Els was two over on the first five holes at Waialae Country Club. He closed the front nine birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle, and rolled from there. Els opened 66-65-66, putting him two back of Baddeley.
Despite the suggestion of the highlights in his hair, a flashy, retro wardrobe and a vanity website (badds.com) advertised on his cap, Baddeley, 21, radiates maturity and an inner peace, and he seemed un-fazed to be the 54-hole leader in his first start as a Tour member. Says fellow Australian James McLean, "Aaron's very dedicated about golf, and he's a very strong Christian. He's serious about that. It directs his life and his decisions."
Plenty of observers had their faith in Baddeley tested over the past few years. After his shocking victory at the 1999 Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur, he struggled to find his way in the U.S. In 2001, as a non-Tour member scrounging for sponsors' exemptions, he made only two cuts in nine events. Last year he was consigned to the Buy.com tour but clawed his way to 10th on die money list, earning a promotion to the big leagues.
The toughness he developed along the way was evident during Sunday's final round. Baddeley hit only four fairways but showed his resolve as he scrambled to keep up with Els, who shot an effortless 67. (Baddeley also displayed a superb stroke; for the week he led the field with only 103 putts.) In the end Els was just too good, and too experienced. "I know exactly what it feels like for Aaron," Els said on Sunday evening. "I've been there quite a few times. I know it's disappointing, but he's going to win a lot of tournaments."
Els, of course, already has. The last player to win his first three Tour starts in a season was Johnny Miller in 1974, but the Big Easy is going to take his sweet time trying to equal that feat. From Hawaii he left for the Singapore Masters, and then it's on to two tournaments in Australia. His next PGA Tour appearance will be the Match Play Championship in Carlsbad, Calif., which begins on Feb. 26.
Don't bet against Els, who has now won eight tournaments worldwide in the last 13 months. The guy is no fluke.