Els may now
be ready to challenge Tiger
While Tiger Woods has been sidelined recovering from knee surgery,
Ernie Els has launched the year in spectacular winning fashion,
giving golf fans the feeling that, at last, the world number one
has a genuine rival.
The big-hitting South African won his final tournament of last
year, the Sun City Challenge, with one of the best rounds of his
career -- a course-record 63 giving him an eight-shot victory over
Scotland's Colin Montgomerie.
Cue 2003, and the British Open champion -- armed with a new set
of Titleist clubs -- has become the first player since Steve Jones,
in 1989, to win the first two events of the U.S. PGA Tour season.
Granted, Woods has been missing as he recovers from his knee surgery
of December 12 but even he would have had his work cut out to stay
in touch with the man popularly known as The Big Easy over the last
Els swept to victory, also by eight shots, at the season-opening
Mercedes Championships in Kapalua, setting a new PGA Tour low with
a 72-hole aggregate of 31-under-par 261.
The South African, who climbed from three to two in the world rankings
with his impressive win, broke the previous mark of 29 under through
four rounds achieved by American Joe Durant at the 2001 Bob Hope
On Sunday, Els triumphed at the Hawaii Open in Honolulu, but this
time he had to dig deep before edging out Australia's Aaron Baddeleyat the second extra hole of a sudden-death playoff.
The twice U.S. Open champion, who had been launching his Titleist
driver vast distances in the calm of Kapalua the week before, had
to guts it out on a tight and windy Waialae Country Club layout.
Baddeley, who birdied the 72nd hole on Sunday to force the playoff,
had his a chance or two of his own to clinch the title in regulation
play, but then failed to come back from the hammer blow of watching
Els hole out from 55 feet at the 74th.
Els had produced a miracle putt at just the right time in much
the same way as Woods himself had done, from 40 feet, to steal the
Mercedes Championships title from Els in a dramatic playoff at Kapalua
three years before.
"I was trying to make it but, from 55 feet, what's your chances,
really?" said the big South African.
"So many times it has happened to me but it kind of worked
the other way around this time. The wheels keep on turning, and
eventually you will get your chance and it will work out for you."
What has been significantly noticeable, though, in recent months
is that Els would appear to have rid himself of the Tiger factor
-- the feeling that, if Woods is in a tournament field, then the
world number one alone has the title to win or lose.
In 2000, Woods won three consecutive majors -- and nine titles
in all -- while a shell-shocked Els, despite finishing second or
tied for second in the first three majors of the year, lost much
of his confidence playing at the highest level.
That, though, is no longer the case.
"I think I was a bit more disciplined and fitter than ever
before," the South African said about 2002, when he clinched
his first British Open crown in a playoff at Muirfield and won five
other titles worldwide.
"I also made peace with the fact that Tiger Woods was out
there (in the same field). I decided to play my own game and not
think about him. And it's gone well as a result.
"I still kind of had a hangover from the previous year's defeats.
I finished second six times that year (in 2001). But that's history,"
he added with a smile.
"In 2000, Tiger was in total control. For an 18-month period,
he was in absolute total control. You know, he won nine times in
'99, and then eight times in 2000 with three majors.
"I mean, that's probably the best year ever in the history
of the game.
"I played pretty well myself -- but he (Woods) definitely
shot us all down, and especially me."
The fact that Els can now smile about the Tiger factor is evidence
in itself that the smooth-swinging South African is at ease with
himself, and with what he is still capable of achieving on the golf
There has never been any doubt about his all-round talent -- his
ability to overpower any course, his deft touch around the greens
and his apparent nerveless and laidback temperament when handling
all the pressures down the stretch.
"You know, this is really a perfect start, really something
I probably needed," he said, after his eight-shot victory in
"I would like to bottle my swing the way I'm swinging right
now -- I could really go out there and kind of free-wheel it at
times with the driver. And my putting stroke and short game were
He then won again in Honolulu on Sunday and said: "I honestly
could not be more thrilled with my start to the year.
"To win the first two tournaments of the season is beyond
my expectations -- I'm looking forward to my year."
The one question that remains is if Els can sustain his good form
for the greater part of 2003 --- and, especially, in the four majors.
If he can, then golf fans can expect one helluva year as the Big
Easy tries to tame the Tiger.
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