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On the Road with Ernie: Big Win at Home to Close Out 2006

Ernie fires a final round 7-under 65 to win his fourth South African Airways Open. Read all about his fantastic week and his 2006 recap in the year's final edition of On the Road with Ernie...

Ernie won the South African Airways Open for the fourth time Sunday.

Man, what a fantastic week. I went into the tournament with some good vibes – you know, I love Humewood and I’d won there way back in 1992. And as I’ve said before, my game has been in pretty good shape for a while now. But finally I put it all together over four rounds and on a blustery Sunday I played about as good as I can play, shooting 65 to win my fourth South African Open. It feels great. It also keeps up my record of winning at least one tournament every year since 1991. It’s been a tough year for me, so this win is huge.

Okay, I’ll take you through the week’s golf, then I’ll talk some more about what this win means for me and we’ll also look back on the entire 2006 season…and before I sign off for the year I’ll give you some thoughts about my goals for 2007.

Back to Humewood, then. For a while my first round was looking like a pretty ordinary day’s work. It was breezy and I wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire with my scoring. Then all of a sudden, five holes from home, things picked up. I went birdie, birdie, eagle and then finished with a couple of solid pars to shoot 67, five under par. That was a nice little finish, I must say, and I felt satisfied with that.

Friday was a calmer day, with a lot less wind. It was nothing more than a gentle breeze, really. As I was saying in the build-up to this tournament, that’s quite rare in this part of the world so it was definitely a day to get moving and try to take advantage of the conditions. I’m happy to say I did exactly that.

My front nine didn’t have quite the fireworks of the previous day, when I played it as my back nine and had a little stretch where I shot four under for three holes. But it was solid. I made a couple of quick birdies after the turn, but probably one of the keys to my round was rescuing a par-5 on the 15th where I pulled my second shot into deep trouble. That par-save really kept the momentum going and I followed it with a couple more birdies back-to-back. Any time you shoot 66 you’re obviously going to be pleased. I was really looking forward to the weekend.

The Weekend

Surprisingly we had another calm day for golf on Saturday, so I kind of knew from the start I’d have to make a bunch of birdies. Anyway, I started with two birdies straight away and made five overall, plus an eagle, to shoot 66. But I wasn’t happy with the way I’d played; my swing felt awkward and my wedge play was terrible. I went straight to the practice ground after my round and in those couple of hours I managed to find something in my swing. That was an important session for me.

It’s unusual to shoot sub-200 for three rounds and not be leading. But Trevor played an awesome third round; he was really impressive. He hit 18 greens in regulation, made nine birdies and nine pars, for a 63. Hats off to him; it made my 66 feel like 75!

Anyway, the way he was playing I figured I’d have to go out there and shoot the lights out to have a chance of winning on Sunday. Maybe try to match his third round score and see what happened. Whatever, it promised to be an exciting day for South African golf, with two home players together at the top of the leaderboard battling it out in our national Open. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Final Round

Sunday was windy, probably the toughest day of the week. I was pleased about that, actually. It added a bit more to the game and I felt like it gave me more of a chance than if the conditions had been calm like the previous two days.

My plan was to go out there and play positive, aggressive golf. Obviously I didn’t have much choice, with Trevor being three shots clear. But this was a bit like a matchplay situation and I needed to apply some pressure early. I figured if I could draw level by the turn, it would be all to play for on the back nine.

As it happened, I was already ahead by the time we reached the turn. After my good session on the range on Saturday evening, I felt so much more comfortable with my game and was swinging the club really well. It was kind of a strange day in some ways; I mean, first I had to try to catch Trevor, which I did. Then suddenly I had a two or three shot lead and I had to protect that. But I didn’t want to get defensive; you can’t afford to in that position. I stayed aggressive and kept pushing for birdies.

As I said in my introduction, I really couldn’t have played much better than I did out there on Sunday. Conditions were tough, it was the final round, and I produced my best golf. That’s the ultimate. My first 17 holes were eight birdies and nine pars. It was a pity about the last hole, making my only bogey of the day, but by then it didn’t really matter. This was a round I’ll remember for a long time. It was a fantastic day and, as I said in my introduction, winning here was a great, great feeling.

If Trevor had sunk some putts early on it could have been a very different story. It would have made it tough for me. But as it was, it turned out to be a tough day for him. He’s had a great season, though, and I know he’s going to continue to go from strength to strength. Trevor’s got the whole game. He’s a hell of a player.

In fact, South African golf is looking healthy right now. We had six home players in the top-10 at Humewood, which was good to see. And the way Trevor is playing, I predict we’ll have three South Africans in the world’s top-10 by early 2007. Also, we’ve got Tim Clark in the top-25, Rory Sabbatini is 39th and young Charl Schwartzel is only just outside the top-50, so he should soon be playing in all the majors and world golf championship events.

Year in Review

This will be my last website report of 2006, so I’ll make this an overview of how the season was for me. Obviously I’m a very happy man this morning. Since I returned to competitive golf just over 12 months ago, after injuring my knee following the 2005 British Open, I’ve basically been playing patch-up golf. I mean, as hard as I tried it just wasn’t happening for me. It was frustrating. The SAA Open was my last chance to set the record straight. Now I’ve done that the relief is immense. This win couldn’t have come at a better time. I just want to take this opportunity to thank the fans at Humewood. You were great. Trust me, the support really means a lot to me.

Anyway, let’s take a quick look back over the 2006 season. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not the sort of person who tends to dwell on my disappointments. Okay, this was probably the most frustrating season I’ve had as a pro, but I’ve put all that behind me. I’m looking forward now to 2007. I’m not saying this one win changes an entire season. But it changes the way I feel going into the end-of-year break.

In any case, there are lots of other positives that I’ll take from 2006. I topped the stroke averages in Europe, averaging 70.02 for the 15 tournaments I played in. Since I came back from injury last December I’ve had 17 top-10 finishes from 28 strokeplay tournaments around the world, including two wins, two playoff losses and five other top-5s. And having successfully kept up my run of consecutive cuts I’m leading those stats on both tours, 79 weeks in Europe and 42 weeks on the PGA Tour.

You know, I’m not saying these records mean everything and obviously I would have loved to have won a few more tournaments. But I’m proud of the fact that even in a poor year I was able to produce some good results. It’s not like I’ve fallen off the map completely. I haven’t been consistent, I know that. But I don’t want to read more into it than there is; these problems were caused by my injury.

Now, I’m fitter than I ever have been since I came out of the army. My knee is strong and the important thing is I trust it; I really trust it. That means I can swing the club the way I want to, without feeling that I have to protect it in any way. I can really start moving forwards now and concentrating on my goals.

I see 2007 is the start of a three-year plan, where I totally re-dedicate myself to the game. I want to win more majors and start giving Tiger a run for his money. If you look at where he is at the top of the world rankings, it’s a big lead so no one is going to get near him any time soon. I’ve got to give myself a three-year stretch to try to approach him and I really believe I can do it. I wouldn’t be out here if I didn’t.

On that note, I’ll sign off for this year. My next tournament isn’t until the end of January, the Qatar Masters, but I’ll be sure to write again before that time.

Until then, I want to wish everyone out there a great Christmas and all the best for the New Year. Thanks again for all your support in 2006.

Bye for now.

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