Els had a 25-foot par putt on the 14th green. Miss it, and he and Schwartzel — two South Africans, the final pair at the CA Championship — would be tied for the lead with four holes left. Make it, and Schwartzel would stay one shot behind the guy whose swing he tried to emulate for years.
"There's always a turning point," Schwartzel would say later.
Sure enough, that was it.
Els hit the par putt just hard enough to get it into the bottom of the cup, Schwartzel could only smile as he walked to the 15th tee, and he never had a good chance at catching his hero again. Els ended up running away to win the CA by four shots, finishing at 18-under 270 after a flawless final round of 66 at Doral.
"He's still like a 15-year-old in my eyes," the 40-year-old Els said of his 25-year-old playing partner Sunday. "He seems so young still. And he's already got so much experience. But it just felt awkward. Him trying to win the golf tournament. I'm trying to win the golf tournament. I'm the old man. He's the youngster. So it was a little different."
Oh, but Els will take it.
He became only the fifth player with multiple victories in the World Golf Championships, joining Tiger Woods, Darren Clarke, Geoff Ogilvy and Phil Mickelson. It was his 61st victory worldwide, his 17th on the PGA Tour, and moved Els to No. 8 in the world ranking.
His fire is still roaring, too. Consider this nugget: A week ago, after finishing tied for 67th at the Honda Classic (a tournament for which Schwartzel, in somewhat baffling fashion, failed to qualify), Els didn't go straight home from PGA National. He went to the nearby driving range at The Bear's Club instead, and just before dark found something that worked.
Whatever it was, it worked wonders: Els was one of only three players with three rounds in the 60s at Doral, along with Alvaro Quiros and Paul Casey.
"I don't think the motivation was lacking," Els said. "I just think that I went about it the wrong way. You know, I was almost chasing my own tail a little bit. I was not looking after the smaller things. ... I kind of let that all out of the window and I was going for the big prize. I was just not managing myself correctly."
He managed Doral correctly, for sure. Els played his last 23 holes of the week without a bogey.
"All credit to Ernie," Schwartzel said. "He played flawless golf."
It was Els' first win since the 2008 Honda Classic, and gave him a check for $1.4 million. Schwartzel earned $850,000, and moments after the final putt holed out, the winner let the kid — who stayed with Els at his South Florida home last week, and will stay with him again this coming week — know what the bigger consolation prize was.
"He's got his tour card over here now," Els said. "And now you guys can really see him in all his glory."
Schwartzel caught a bad break on the 15th hole when his ball plugged in a front bunker, and he knocked that into a back bunker on his way to a crucial bogey. He missed short putts on the next two holes and closed with a 70.
They were chatty at times, which was expected. Els won a tournament playing alongside Schwartzel's father more than 20 years ago, and Schwartzel said he learned to swing by watching a tape Els made. Walking up the fourth hole together, they talked and laughed as if it were a practice round, not the final pairing of a World Golf Championships event.
Els hit his tee shot there to 8 feet, the best at No. 4 all day. He made birdie.
"I think both of us were pretty focused," Schwartzel said. "We were trying to win and you know, I felt like both of us really gave it our all. He just played a bit better."
Matt Kuchar (68) finished seven shots behind Els, tied for third with Martin Kaymer (69) and Padraig Harrington (72), whose chances ended with three straight bogeys on the back nine.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson (68) was tied for 14th, 10 shots back.
"I'm doing the best I can. It just is not quite clicking on the course yet," Mickelson said. "But it was a better round today. And it doesn't feel as far off."
Els left The Bear's Club a week earlier saying the same.
Now he's got a truckload of momentum as he heads to the Masters, and thinks he might be primed for a big year. With good reason, too — he has placed at least fourth on every course where this year's majors will be played.
"I'm 40 years old. I've had a tough run," Els said. "Whew! The hairs are standing up. It's just great."