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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 two weeks.

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 Chrysler Classic.

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 course.

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 Kapalua.

"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 pretty good."

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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