THOMASTOWN, Ireland - The majors over, Ernie Els got a consolation prize Sunday by capturing his first World Golf Championship.
Els outlasted Thomas Bjorn in a brilliantly played duel at Mount Juliet, making a 6-foot birdie on the 17th hole for a cushion he desperately needed and closing with a 3-under 69 to win the American Express Championship by one shot.
The victory, his fourth of the year, allowed the 34-year-old South African to move past Tiger Woods to No. 2 in the world ranking, and gave Els yet another chance to reach No. 1 by the end of the year.
His next target is Vijay Singh, who didn't play this week because of damage to his Florida home by Hurricane Jeanne. The remnants of that storm covered southwestern Ireland with rain that spit down on Mount Juliet the entire day, although Els and Bjorn handled it just fine.
They were the only two players who had a realistic chance of winning, and neither was willing to give it away.
"I tried to put him away, but I couldn't," Els said. "He didn't want to go away."
Bjorn, in contention for the first time since February, closed with a 4-under 68 and was within one shot of Els on three occasions. The 33-year-old Dane had a 70-foot eagle putt on the 17th hole, but ran it 10 feet by and missed the birdie putt coming back.
Els was short of the green, but pitched to 6 feet and made the putt.
That gave him the breathing room he needed. Els found the bunker on the 18th and blasted out to 15 feet, but when Bjorn missed his birdie putt from 40 feet, the South African could take two putts for his bogey.
Els finished at 18-under 270 and earned $1.2 million, giving him firm control of the European tour money list.
What mattered the most was winning, especially after his close calls in the majors - second at the Masters and British Open, one shot out of a playoff at the PGA Championship, and an 80 in the final round of the U.S. Open after starting the day two shots out of the lead and in the final pairing.
"This is a new start," Els said. "I wanted to forget about the majors, the near misses, and get on with my career and with my life."
David Howell, playing in the final threesome as a bystander, had a 71 and finished third.
Darren Clarke holed a wedge for eagle on the first hole to fire up the Irish gallery on a bone-chilling day, and shot 68 to tie for fourth with Sergio Garcia (70).
Woods now is without a stroke-play title for the first time since winning the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, his fifth start of his career. He was going after his third straight American Express Championship, but shot 70 for the third straight day and finished ninth, eight shots behind.
Woods battled a back injury all week and said he was happy to finish 72 holes.
He now is No. 3 for the first time since May 1999, about the time his swing changes were starting to come together and he went on a torrid run.
Now, published reports have him fleeing to Barbados for a wedding next week to Elin Nordegren. Woods declined to confirm the newspaper stories this week, and asked about a Caribbean vacation only said, "I'm ready to go diving. I'm ready to hop in that water and shoot some fish."
Els again is ready to take on the world, putting together four strong rounds on a course that was taxing with its wet weather and strong wind, and a final round made tough by the relentless play of Bjorn.
This was a duel from the start.
As a cold drizzle slowly changed into a light rain, Bjorn nearly holed out his approach on the opening hole for birdie, but he didn't tap it in until Els made an 18-foot birdie putt.
On the dangerous par-3 fourth, with water guarding the left side, both hit their shots 15 feet on either side of the pin and holed the birdie putts. Bjorn nudged to within one shot with a birdie on the par-5 fifth, Els restored his edge to two shots with a birdie on the par-5 10th.
Bjorn never could catch up, and Els finally put him away by tapping in for his bogey on the final hole.