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GOLF ROUNDUP

Els supplants Woods as No. 2

The pressure to win made Ernie Els feel like he was in a major. Given all he has been through this year, his victory in the American Express Championship sure felt like a major triumph.

Emotionally spent from a Grand Slam season of heartache, Els reasserted himself as a major force yesterday by outlasting Thomas Bjorn in a brilliantly played duel in the cold rain at Mount Juliet in Thomastown, Ireland. He closed with a 3-under-par 69 for a one-shot victory and his first World Golf Championship.

"Everybody knows what I've been through this summer," Els said. "I had a lot of pressure on me, and I think I showed that I didn't want to lose."

The Big Easy had every reason to feel sorry for himself.

He lost the Masters when Phil Mickelson birdied the last hole. He played in the final group of the US Open and shot 80. He lost the British Open in a four-hole playoff against unheralded Todd Hamilton. And a bogey on the final hole knocked him out of a playoff at the PGA Championship.

"I wanted to forget about the majors, the near-misses," Els said. "I needed to get that out of my system and start over. Otherwise, I'm going to get left behind. I don't want to do that. I want to win tournaments, and the only way you can do it is to move forward."

Els took one small leap with his fourth victory of the year.

He moved past Tiger Woods to No. 2 in the world ranking, and the 34-year-old South African now has yet another chance to reach No. 1 by the end of the year.

Els and Vijay Singh, who did not play this week because of hurricane damage to his home in Florida, are scheduled to play the next two tournaments in Europe.

Bjorn gave Els all he could handle in the bone-chilling rain, shooting a 68 and staying within one shot most of the day.

David Howell, who played in the final threesome, was a bystander to a terrific battle. He shot 71 and finished third, five shots behind Els.

Woods now is without a stroke-play title for the first time since he won the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, the fifth tournament of his career. He overcame a back injury that improved as the week went on, but he couldn't keep pace with the leaders and closed with a 70 to finish eight shots behind.

"I'm happy to have played all four rounds," Woods said. "I don't know how I did it, but I got a top 10 out of it."

PGA -- Fred Funk birdied the final hole to finish off a final-round 6-under 66 and win the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Madison, Miss., by a stroke, his first Tour victory in six years. The 48-year-old US Ryder Cup player tied a course record at Annandale Golf Club with a 22-under 266 to win for the first time since he won here in 1998.

Funk had seven birdies and a bogey to become the second two-time Tour winner at the 7,199-yard course. He surged to the top of the leaderboard with a 64 Saturday, and held off Ryan Palmer in the final round for his sixth Tour victory. Palmer had a chance to go to 22 under on 18, but he left his 49-foot eagle putt 5 inches short and tapped in for birdie.

Champions -- Wayne Levi won his second Champions Tour event, shooting a 4-under 68 for a two-stroke victory at the Constellation Energy Classic in Hunt Valley, Md. Levi led by two with four holes to play, and added a birdie on the par-5 16th, finishing at 16-under 200 and holding off late charges by several players, including Hale Irwin, Rodger Davis, and Jim Thorpe.

Irwin matched the tournament record with a final-round 64, finishing alone in second at 14 under. He drained a 93-foot putt for eagle at the par-5 fifth and finished with eight birdies, including five straight on the back nine.

Davis also made eagle at the fifth and stayed in contention with a 31 on the front nine. But he managed just a birdie, seven pars, and a bogey on the back nine for a 67, finishing at 203.

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