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ELS RALLIES TO WIN BYRON NELSON CLASSIC

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When he arrived in Irving, Ernie Els was mystified as to why he was playing so poorly.

When he left, he was equally mystified as to why he was playing so well."I came in hoping to make the cut. And now here we are," Els said Sunday after accepting the trophy for a rallying, three-shot victory in the GTE-Byron Nelson Classic.

"That's the best I've played in a long time," he said. "I feel I played great all week."

Except, however, for the first 11 holes of the final round at the TPC at Four Seasons. Over that span he watched a three-shot lead - established when he played the two middle rounds in 126 - dwindle and eventually disappear.

He three-putted the 11th hole to fall one shot back of Mike Heinen. Then he began choping up the 12th.

"I hit a poor drive, a poor second shot, a poor chip," Els, the current U.S. Open title-holder, said. "I could feel it slipping away."

He was looking at a 15-foot putt to save par and stay in touch with the lead. The 25-year-old South African rapped it into the heart of the hole.

"That turned everything around," Els said. "If I go two down, everything could have been a lot different.

"When I made that, I felt like something was going to happen."

It did.

He birdied three of the next four holes to break out of the pack and finished off a 68 with a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole.

Els, who won two South African tournaments earlier this year, scored his 15th worldwide victory with a 17-under-par 263.

Heinen and Robin Lee Freeman, each of whom led or shared the lead during the final round, and veteran D.A. Weibring tied for second at 266.

Weibring, who started the final round six shots back, closed up with a 65 despite some problems with his right wrist. Heinen shot 66, including a 5-under-par 30 on the front, and Freeman had a 68.

It was another two shots back to the group at 12-under par: Jay Don Blake, Scott Verplank, veteran Gil Morgan and Kenny Perry. Verplank closed with a 65, Morgan and Blake shot 66, and Perry had a 67.

Els, who is building a home in Orlando, Fla., and is a member of the American PGA Tour, collected $234,000 for his victory. Perhaps more importantly, it restored some shaken confidence and marked him as a major player in the defense of his American national championship next month at Shinnecock Hills on Southampton, N.Y.

"I'd been in a bit of a slump in March and April, through Florida and in the Masters," said Els, who took three weeks away from competition before coming to this event.

"I didn't have very high expectations coming in," he said, grinned, and added: "Maybe I should have taken a three-week break a little earlier."

He doesn't have any other long breaks on his immediate schedule. But he has a short one.

Els said he plans to play in the next three tournaments - the Buick Classic, Colonial and Memorial - but then will take a one-week break before the U.S. Open.