Beginning the final round five strokes off the lead, Ernie Els birdied three of his first four holes and two of his last three en route to a 6-under 65 for the second day in a row to claim a one-stroke victory over Steve Stricker and Doug Barron at 13-under 200.
Employing a rather unorthodox method of switching his putting grip throughout the tournament, the South African rolled a bogey-free final round.
“I went to the first tee and on the first green I started using the claw and I made I think six or seven birdies, six birdies, whatever it was (yesterday). Then I went with it again today and then I started feeling the pressure, I haven’t used it under pressure, so I was a little unsure,” explained Els. “Then I went back to the normal grip the last three holes. That’s just what we do. I’m trying to get more comfortable with my putting and I think I’m getting there.”
However, the crucial shot that led to his winning birdie on the final hole of the tournament was overcoming the windy, gusty conditions and producing a clutch play from the bunker at 18 that made the birdie try even possible.
“I think that’s the shot of the tournament for me was that shot. Just really raining a bit. I tried to get the second shot as close as possible to the green. I had mud on the right side and normally when the mud’s right, the ball goes left. So I was aiming at the bunker thinking it’s going to go left and it actually stayed on the line and went in the bunker, “described Ernie Els. “ I had a 63-yard shot, which is not a very nice yardage to have, but luckily the greenskeeping’s great, it was a nice firm lie. I hit the shot out to about 12, 15 feet and made the putt. That shot, we don’t really practice those shots, we’re kind of going on instinct there. I just played the ball off the back foot and got it up on the green and then made the putt for once.”
The host course, the Newport Beach Country Club, a par-71, 6,821 classic layout had provided some receptive greens primarily due to recent rains.
And one of those players taking advantage of the scoring conditions was Bernhard Langer, who had a share of the first round lead and headed into the final round as the sole leader by one. He was on a mission to become the all-time victories leader on the PGA Tour Champions circuit.
The 65-year-old German star had tied Hale Irwin with 45 victories a month prior. However, despite being in the hunt with some fine birdies early on including a pitch in over a bunker at hole eight, he couldn’t keep the putter going.
“Well, it is disappointing to shoot 73, 2 over. Obviously, Ernie had a great day, so my hat’s off to him, but I had a two‑shot lead at one point in the round and would have loved to play a little better the last 14 holes,” said Langer who won here in 2008.
With the win, Ernie Els (who also won here in 2020) becomes the fourth player to win the Hoag Classic on multiple occasions; he joins Hale Irwin (1998, 2002), Jay Haas (2007, 2016) and Fred Couples (2010, 2014)
The 53-year-old began last year’s final round of the Hoag Classic with a one-stroke lead before a 2-over 73 resulted in his solo-seventh place finish which was won by fellow South African Retief Goosen. In his bid to become the first player to successfully defend a Hoag Classic title, Goosen finished at 5-under 208 (T37).
The brilliant close sparked a reemergence of Big Ernie’s self-belief.
“Finishing the way I did, that’s what’s going to give me the confidence that I need. I haven’t finished that way for two years, that’s why I haven’t won, “Els said. “Those are the kind of things I used to do when I was winning events when I was in my prime. So I want to get those feelings back and this was a really great start.”