Ernie Els also closing in on World No.1 Ranking
Tiger Woods might have been looking over his shoulder at the wrong guy.
When Woods returned from his post-Masters break to find his lead in the world ranking the slimmest in five years, the attention was squarely on Vijay Singh, who was No. 2 in the world ranking and No. 1 in the eyes of most players.
So much changed in one week at the Memorial Tournament.
Ernie Els showed how well-rounded his game has become by going 66-66 on the weekend _ the lowest score of the week at Muirfield Village. He was so confident off the tee that he routinely used his driver. He gave himself ample birdie chances. His putting was as clutch as ever: Els took only 100 putts over four rounds.
The result was a four-shot victory that moved Els up to No. 2 in the world ranking Monday for the first time since Oct. 19, when he was 7.27 points behind. Now, he is only 2.28 points behind going into two of his favorite tournaments.
Els is a two-time winner of the Buick Classic and a two-time champion at the U.S. Open.
"Right now, I feel like the best player if you beat a quality field like this," he said. "But next week is a new week. You've got to take it week to week. I've been playing consistently well for three years now, but Tiger ... his record speaks for itself _ eight majors. But yeah, I'm getting there."
The Memorial was a big step.
Since digging himself out of a mental funk during the 2001 season, the lowest point in Els' career, no one has won more tournaments worldwide than the 34-year-old South Africa. He has 13 victories dating to the start of the '02 season, while Woods has 12. Els also has won the World Match Play Championship twice and Sun City once.
Els has five top 10s in the last seven majors, including his victory in the '02 British Open. Woods has only two top 10s during the same stretch, which began after he won the Masters and U.S. Open.
But Els hasn't proven himself as much against the strongest fields.
Europe has excellent players, just not as many as the PGA Tour. That's why Els was so fired up about winning the Memorial against a field that was missing only two of the top 10 players healthy enough to play.
"This week was a good yardstick for me because of the field and the way guys played," Els said. "I think Tiger played really solid for him. Freddie (Couples) played good."
Indeed, the world ranking points he got from winning the Memorial were the most since Els won the British Open.
Couples, a great player whenever he is healthy enough to bend over and stick a tee in the ground, was the primary threat to Els along the back nine at Muirfield Village. He was within one shot, and twice was poised to catch him until Els saved par with clutch putting that has come to define his career.
But it meant something extra for Els to hold off an early charge by Woods.
The Big Easy has finished second to Woods six times in official events _ the most of any other player _ and no one was more rattled by Woods' record-setting performance from late 1999 to early 2001.
It was only 10 years ago that Els introduced himself as the next star in golf when he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont at age 24. Curtis Strange referred to Els as "the next guy." Because of his thick, Virginia accent, it sounded as though Strange said "the next god." Either way, not many argued.
"It came pretty easy to me," Els said "Then, the tour kind of changed when Tiger came out. Players played differently, the level came up, and I wasn't quite with it. I think my swing wasn't nearly what it is now. With the help of Lead (swing coach David Leadbetter) and my family, I'm a little bit more of a changed player."
Els had reason to be concerned in the final round.
With decent scoring and little wind, he was even par for the day and tied for the lead with Woods and Couples when he went for the green on the par-5 seventh, even though his best 3-wood probably could not get there. A delicate chip from the rough left him a slippery 5-footer for birdie. Els made it, and never looked back.
"He's got all the talent in the world, you know that," Woods said.
Singh, who now has gone three straight tournaments out of the top 10, remains as big a threat to Woods' grasp on the No. 1 ranking as anyone.
Still, Woods performed better than Singh in all three PGA Tour events they played after the Masters, including their first pairing of the year during the first two rounds at Muirfield Village.
Els might be tougher for Woods to shake.
The last time Woods and Els went head-to-head was at The Presidents Cup in South Africa, the most pressure either player has ever faced on the golf course.
They were picked to play in a sudden-death playoff when the matches ended in a tie. On the second extra hole, Els made a 12-foot par putt to extend the playoff. Then after Woods made a 15-foot par on the third extra hole, the Big Easy had to make an 8-footer for par and poured it in the center of the cup.
It was riveting stuff, and showed that Els won't back down from any challenge.
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