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Ernie Els targets first PGA Tour win of season

Ernie Els looks as though he belongs with the other stars at the Byron Nelson Championship.

The Big Easy is part of the ``Big Four'' that includes Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson. The top four players in the world ranking are past champions at Lord Byron's tournament, and all have three wins this year.

Els just hasn't done it on the PGA Tour.

While Woods and Mickelson were dueling at Doral, Els was winning the Dubai Desert Classic.

The 35-year-old South African won the Masters this year, but it was the Qatar Masters. His third win on the European tour came two weeks ago at the BMW Asian Open in Shanghai. Els won by a tour-record 13 shots.

``I feel like I've got to step it up over here,'' Els said. ``I really didn't play very good in March. The Masters wasn't good at all. So yes, I feel the need to ... play really well against these players because this is where the best field is.''

No one will doubt that this week.

U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen is playing the Nelson for the first time, making this the first regular PGA Tour event to have the top five in the world.

This doesn't feel like a major, especially because it will be played over two courses -- the TPC at Las Colinas and Cottonwood Valley -- the first two days. But the players notice who's around.

``I'm playing with Ernie tomorrow, and that's the first time I've played with Ernie or the guys in the top five all year,'' Singh said. ``So I'm excited to play. I'll be more excited going out there tomorrow than I've been in a while.''

Those are strong words considering Singh is coming off two victories in his last three starts, at the Houston Open in a playoff over John Daly, and at the Wachovia Championship on Sunday in a four-hole playoff to beat Jim Furyk.

Despite 15 victories over the last two years, Singh is still No. 2 in the world ranking, although that can change if he finishes at least second in Dallas.

Woods is No. 1 in large part because of the quality of his victories. He earned all three of his PGA Tour trophies this year at tournaments that had at least four of the top five players in the world. And No. 3 was a major, his playoff victory at the Masters.

Still, he remains somewhat of a mystery.

Woods hit the ball just fine at Quail Hollow last week, but his iron play was substandard and his knowledge of the rules was lacking. He thought his finish Sunday -- 3 under over the final four holes -- was enough to sneak into the top 10, but he was assessed a two-shot penalty for moving a fence that surrounded a toilet station on No. 10.

``I figured I'd move the fence, no big deal,'' Woods said. ``Obviously, you can't move mesh fence, staked fence. You get line-of-sight relief, which is different. I never knew that rule. That penalty cost me.''

Mickelson hasn't won with Woods in the field this year, although his victories in Phoenix and Pebble Beach were impressive in that he set or tied scoring records in each -- a 60 in Phoenix, a 62 at Spyglass Hill.

Lefty got it going Sunday at Quail Hollow with nine birdies on his first 15 holes until he made a double bogey on the par-3 17th -- he played that hole in 7 over for the week -- and a bogey on the last.

The strong field excites him.

``We know we've got to go low and we tend to push each other,'' Mickelson said. ``Vijay has been playing so well that to beat him, you've got to go extremely low. Tiger has been playing great. You know if you get a hot hand, you've got to really push it, because those guys will be right on your tail and make up some ground pretty quick.''

For Els, this is the start of his run to the U.S. Open.

As usual, it takes him across the ocean.

He'll leave Dallas for a week at home in London before playing the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, then back to the United States to play the Memorial, Booz Allen Classic at Congressional, then the U.S. Open.

It would be nice to have a victory by then.

Els came close at the start of the season. He was one shot out of the lead at Kapalua until hitting his tee shot on the par-5 18th out of bounds, making double bogey. He shot 62 in the final round of the Sony Open, only to see Singh birdie the 18th hole for a one-shot lead.

``I'm 35, and I've got a lot of golf left in my body,'' Els said. ``There are a lot of good things I can still do in this game, so I'm looking forward to that.''


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