DORAL, Fla. (AP) — Charl Schwartzel has been looking up to Ernie Els for as long as he has been around golf.
Schwartzel was a toddler when his father and Els played together in a team event they won at a local club in South Africa. He remembers going to his first golf tournament, the Million Dollar Challenge, to watch the Big Easy. He even became an affiliate member of Els’ foundation, traveling with the team of junior golfers.
“He was like my big hero,” Schwartzel said Saturday.
The dynamics have changed dramatically at the CA Championship.
His hero now stands in the way of Schwartzel shining on a world stage.
Schwartzel ran off four birdies in the opening six holes, and the 25-year-old South African stayed in the game with three big par putts on the back nine for a 5-under 67. Els, a three-time major champion with 60 victories worldwide, made a few soft mistakes and had to settle for a 2-under 70 to join Schwartzel in a tie for the lead at 12-under 204.
Els has rarely been so desperate to win. He is coming off a season in which he failed to win anywhere in the world for the first time since he was a 20-year-old playing his first full year as a pro.
He has rarely been so pleased with a guy he is trying to beat.
“I think it’s a wonderful, cool story,” Els said. “It’s great for South African golf, obviously. A 25-year-old really making his mark this year. He’s won twice. He’s a force to be reckoned with. And I think it’s great. Tomorrow, we shake hands and play 18 holes as hard as we can. He’s going to try and win. I’m going to try and win.”
It will be an all-South African final pairing, three weeks after another World Golf Championship event produced an all-England pairing in the final of the Match Play Championship.
Only in this case, there are loads of other possibilities.
Padraig Harrington of Ireland, who had downplayed his chances most of the week, ran off four birdies on the back nine only to have his streak of 26 holes without a bogey end with a three-putt on the 18th. He still had a 67 and was one shot behind.
Robert Allenby, somehow, remains in the mix. The Australian missed eight putts from inside 15 feet and was falling out of contention until two late birdies allowed him to salvage a 1-under 71, leaving him only two shots behind.
Bob Hope Classic champion Bill Haas nearly holed his final shot on the 18th for a tap-in birdie and a 70. He was three shots behind.
Els looks at Schwartzel as a little brother, and he showed that earlier this month when Schwartzel was hanging around Florida between the two WGC events. Els took him into his home, invited him to practice at the Bear’s Club, even took him to play Seminole.
“I fed him well. I gave him good wine,” Els said. “So he owes me big time. I think he had a great week. I’ve known him a long time and he almost feels like a little brother to me in some ways. And now we are in the final round. I think if we talked about it last week to end up this way, I don’t think we ever would have even in our wildest dreams imagined that. I think it’s great.”
Schwartzel is the least accomplished among the top four players, although he has one advantage – the recent experience of winning.
Els has not won on any of the major tours since the Honda Classic two years ago. Ditto for Harrington, whose last sanctioned victory was the PGA Championship two years ago at Oakland Hills.
Schwartzel qualified for this elite event by winning consecutive weeks in South Africa to move into the top 50 in the world, now at No. 35. He didn’t win against the strongest field, but he won.
“Obviously, this is a lot bigger than any others that I’ve won,” Schwartzel said. “But when it comes down to winning, you’ve still got to make the putts and hit the shots, so I’ll just keep reminding myself that I have won and that I can do it. I’ll give it a good shot.”
Els won on the Blue Monster in 2002, when he took an eight-shot lead into the final round and survived a frenetic rally by Tiger Woods to win by two. Els has a chance to join Woods as the only multiple winners of this WGC event, having won in Ireland when it was the American Express Championship in 2004.
Els showed so much confidence in his swing that he took his drive over the left bunkers on No. 5, about a 285-yard carry with the wind blowing across and slightly helping, which left him a flip wedge to a few week for birdie. That started a stretch of three birdies in four holes, only Schwartzel stayed with him.
He holed an 8-foot par putt on the 11th, and one from about the same distance on the 13th after a dreadful tee shot that was so far to the right that it clipped a tree and tumbled into the rough. Then came the 14th, when his tee shot hung up in the shaggy collar of a bunker, forcing him to place his left foot on a mound and his right foot in the sand, no shot at reaching the green. He hit wedge to 18 feet and made that for par.
Els missed short birdie chances on the 12th and 16th, but found a hard time complaining about a share of the lead.
Especially with Schwartzel at his side on a big day for South Africa.