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Champion Els leapfrogs Tiger Woods
Sinking feeling. Woods plays out of a bunker on the 18th.

THOMASTOWN, Ireland (Reuters) -- Ernie Els held off a strong challenge from playing partner Thomas Bjorn to win the WGC-American Express Championship by one shot on Sunday.

The 34-year-old South African fired a closing three-under-par 69 in driving rain at Mount Juliet, clinching his maiden World Golf Championship and replacing Tiger Woods as world no.2.

Els, two strokes clear overnight, birdied two of the first three holes to stay in front and effectively sealed the title with a birdie-four at the 17th.

He finished with a closing aggregate of 270 - 18-under-par.

Denmark's Bjorn carded a final-round 68 for outright second place with Britain's David Howell alone in third after a 71.

Champion Woods, deposed as the game's top-ranked player by Fiji's Vijay Singh three weeks ago, carded a third successive 70 for ninth place at 10-under 278.

Australia's Mark Hensby fired the lowest round of the day, an eight-birdie 65 lifting him into a share of 11th at eight under after starting out tied for 38th.

Els, two strokes clear of the field overnight, birdied two of the first three holes to stay in front as the expected mid-morning rain intensified.

The three-times major winner sank a 16-foot birdie putt at the first and holed out from 14 feet at the par-three third to get to 17 under.

Bjorn, however, trimmed the South African's lead to just one, matching his birdies at the first and third and picking up another shot at the par-five fifth.

The pair traded pars over the next four holes before Els regained his two-shot cushion with a birdie at the par-five 10th, where he reached the green in two.

Bjorn, however, got back to within a stroke of the South African when he birdied the par-three 11th by holing a 23-foot putt.

Although the Dane faltered with a bogey at the par-three 14th after being bunkered off the tee, he bounced back with a birdie-three at the 15th, where he holed a 16-foot putt.

Els, who not previously won in Ireland, effectively sealed the title with his fourth birdie of the day at the par-five 17th.

While he holed out there from six feet, Bjorn's birdie attempt from 10 feet lipped out and Els had a two-shot advantage playing the last.

The big South African, who bogeyed the last after finding a greenside bunker with his approach, had started the tournament in relaxed mood after taking a two-week break.

Bitterly disappointed at failing to win any of this year's majors, he has now put that behind him.

"It's past history now and I can't do anything about it," he said before the final round. "I'm over that and I'm ready to take it on again.

"I've got good goals that I still want to achieve in my career and I just want to start working hard again," added the 34-year-old, who completed his first victory since the PGA Tour's Memorial tournament in June.

Els ran Phil Mickelson close at the U.S. Masters in April before finishing second. In July, he was edged out by American Todd Hamilton in a playoff for the British Open at Royal Troon.

At Whistling Straits in August, he three-putted from around 80 feet at the final hole to cost himself the chance of joining a playoff for the title, a closing 73 tying him for fourth.

With gale force winds and heavy rain forecast for Sunday afternoon, teeoff times were brought forward for the final round at Mount Juliet. The 68-strong field was sent out in groups of three instead of two, with a two-tee start.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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