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Els returns to form and aims for No. 1

Photo: John Biever/SI

Ernie Els finished in the top 5 at the British Open and the PGA.

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Three bad shots.

Two missed putts and one errant drive were all that kept Ernie Els from an ideal round of golf. Might have kept him from catching Tiger Woods, too.

Els saved his best round of the PGA Championship for Sunday, shooting a 4-under 66 that got him close to Woods. But it wasn't enough to win - wasn't even enough to be runner-up, in fact.

He finished at 5 under for the tournament, three strokes behind Woods and one behind Woody Austin. It's his second straight top-five finish at a major, following his tie for fourth at the British Open.

"If I could have those back, it would have been really perfect, a perfect round of golf," Els said. "But to come back from six back against the world's No. 1 was always going to be tough. But I gave it a good shot."

And considering where he's been the past few years, third place looks pretty good.

Els is a three-time major winner, and a charter member of the "Big Five." For a brief spell back in 1999 and 2000, he was Woods' main foil. When Woods reeled off victories in nine of 16 PGA Tour events, the Big Easy was the runner-up in five of them.

When Woods won the U.S. and British opens in 2000, Els was right there beside him, the Ed McMahon to Woods' Johnny.

And when Woods decided to retool his swing in 2004, Els filled the void. He won three times, had top-10 finishes at all four majors - including seconds at the Masters and the British - and climbed to No. 2 in the world rankings.

"My motivation is to get the best out of me again. I was this close in 2004," Els said, holding up two fingers with barely any space between them. "I was that close to being No. 1 and deserving No. 1."

But the week after the 2005 British Open, Els tore ligaments in his left knee while sailing. Surgery ended his season, and he's been trying to regain his old game ever since.

His best finish last year was third at the British Open, and he had seven other top 10s. He arrived at Southern Hills with three top fives - he was a stroke out of the lead at one point at Carnoustie - and was No. 4 in the world rankings.

"It's a three-year deal. I knew it's not going to happen overnight," he said. "... Some things just take a little bit more time, and I just want to still believe that I can become No. 1 and I can play the way I want to play."

Days like Sunday will certainly help.

Els said Saturday that as a fan he'd be "putting my house" on Woods, who is now 13-0 when he takes at least a share of the lead into the final round of a major. As a competitor, though, Els said he wasn't about to give up.

He opened with three birdies in his first eight holes, two coming on 20-footers. He looked like he was going to make it four on the front nine when he got within 6 feet. That's a gimme in most instances.

Not this time.

He got the stroke back with a birdie on 10, and had a chance to pull within two of Woods with another 6-footer on No. 11. But after hitting that putt on No. 9 too soft, he hit this one too hard.

He wound up with par, but missed opportunities have a way of costing players when Woods is involved.

"Guess it's a bit of a reaction still," Els said. "I really went at the flag and hit such a good shot, and then to have such a tough putt, it's one of those things."

Worse was the bogey on 16. Woods had bogeyed No. 9, and birdies on 13 and 14 had gotten Els within two. But he was left off the 16th tee - into-the-gallery left - and his only option was to hack back onto the fairway.

He had about 100 yards to the green, but he wound up on the back edge. His 40-foot putt for par ran about 2 feet past, and Els' day was pretty much done.

"Those three shots probably cost me," he said. "But, you know, still played a pretty good round."

And there will be more in the future, Els promised.

"I do believe that I'm working on the right stuff and I've made strides," he said. "I need to start winning some tournaments, and that will create more confidence. And winning becomes almost a habit. Look at Tiger.

"I had a couple of years where I won a lot of tournaments, and you start feeling a lot more comfortable on Sundays and Saturdays and weekends," he said. "So that's what I'm working on."

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