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Ernie Els returns to action at Byron Nelson

Vijay Singh has made a lot of noise about his desire to depose Tiger Woods at the top of the world rankings, but Ernie Els also is within striking distance. South Arica's Els is a quiet No. 3, if that's possible. He already has won twice this year - once on the PGA Tour and once on the European Tour. For much of the final round, Els looked like he would win The Masters until Phil Mickelson caught fire.

Els followed up his Masters runner-up finish with a third-place at the Heritage before taking a three-week break.

Els returns to action at the Byron Nelson Championship on Thursday, the first event of a busy schedule he has planned of six consecutive tournaments culminating with the US Open.

Els, more than anyone, knows what it is like to be beaten by Woods. Back in 2000, when Woods was on his way to winning the chronological Grand Slam, Els played some very good golf, but was simply outclassed, as he candidly admitted.

"I finished second six times to him that year," Els recalled. "At the time, he was just better than anybody. If you brought your best game, it was still probably not going to be enough. I said that and I got a lot of stick for it, but times have changed now.

"Tiger is not playing as well as he did then. Guys like Vijay, Phil (Mickelson), Davis (Love) and me have elevated a little bit, and the gap has closed a bit. I think guys get to the first tee and really believe they can win with Tiger in the field. Golf will humble the best of them and that's where we are."

As Woods has returned to the pack, many have suggested it is time for him to reunite with old coach, Butch Harmon, from whom he severed ties two years ago. But that's not likely, if for no other reason than Woods is reluctant to admit he needs Harmon's help again.

Woods, for his part, has been working recently with Mark O'Meara's Dallas-based instructor Hank Haney, who is rather coy about their arrangement.

"I'm not saying I teach Tiger Woods," Haney said. "We're old friends. He respects my views on the game, just as he respects other people's views."

Els, for his part, doesn't think Harmon would offer Woods any magic bullet solution.

"He knows his swing," Els said of Woods. "If he really feels he needs Butch, he'll probably call him."

Woods, Singh, Els and Mickelson head a star-studded field at the 5.8 million-dollar Byron Nelson, but all are casting an eye on Shinnecock Hills, site of next month's US Open. Els just hopes he isn't exhausted by time he gets there. He heads back to Europe next week for two tournaments, before returning to the US for the Memorial, the Buick Classic and the US Open.

"All my favorite events are right after each other this year," he said. "After a three-week break, I've just got to get back to work and do what I do best, and that's play golf."

Els still hasn't seen a tape of the final round of the Masters. He was in a different pairing from Mickelson, and did not see any of the winner's closing birdies.

"It's a tournament I want so dearly," he said. "It would have been a milestone in my career but the way I played, and the way I got outplayed, that afternoon will go down in Masters history. I don't think you'll see a much more exciting Masters than that."

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