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The sun popped out on Sunday evening as Ernie Els loped up the
18th fairway at Westchester Country Club in suburban New York
City, two shots clear of Jeff Maggert and a mile ahead of the
rest of the golf world. The timing couldn't have been better,
since Els's coronation as the game's new golden boy deserved the
biggest spotlight going. With his frighteningly easy
wire-to-wire victory, Els successfully defended his title at the
Buick Classic, which, coupled with his victory two weeks ago in
the U.S. Open, propelled him to the No. 1 spot in the World

Els's luminous play was all the more well received because it
put a shine on what had been a dark week. On June 16, Jeff
(Squeeky) Medlen died of leukemia in his hometown of Columbus,
Ohio, and the news hit Westchester with as much force as the
thunderstorm that halted the final round for two hours. Squeeky
had not caddied for his longtime partner, Nick Price, since last
October's Tour Championship, but his presence was felt at every
tournament since--and not just because of the green ribbons that
players and caddies took to wearing on their hats in tribute. As
the somber news spread across the grounds during last Tuesday's
practice round, those ribbons were shrouded with a black band
and the flags at the club were lowered to half-mast, where they
stayed throughout the tournament. "It's been an emotional week
for me and for everybody," Els said in the Sunday twilight after
wrapping up his 16-under-par 268, on rounds of 64, 68, 67 and 69.

Els seized control late in the afternoon of the first round, but
the leader for much of the day was Paul Azinger, in with an
early 67. Azinger hasn't won since undergoing debilitating
treatment for lymphoma in his right shoulder in 1993-94, and his
presence atop the leader board added more poignancy to what was
already an overwrought situation. In fact, the normally amiable
Azinger demonstrated how frayed emotions were during his
postround press conference, when questions turned to his
recovery from cancer. "I was wondering how long it would be
before someone asked if I was all the way back," Azinger said
sharply. "Let's see, that's one...two...three questions. The
over-under was 3 1/2."

Later he was more reflective. "I realize how lucky I am that
what I had was treatable," said Azinger. "I said a long time ago
that when I open my eyes in the morning, I thank God that I can
tumble out of bed, and I still feel that way."

Three weeks before the Buick, during the Memorial, Azinger had
visited Squeeky in Columbus. "He was real hoarse and dry and
couldn't talk," said Azinger. "I held his hand. I wanted to give
him some hope. I even talked to him about God a little bit. I
think he was at peace, and he's better off now. He's a lot
better off, no doubt. He was suffering, he was absolutely

The storybook ending that everyone was hoping for--an Azinger
victory--was not to be. After a second-round 69 moved him into a
tie for third, four strokes behind Els, Azinger was disqualified
for failing to sign his scorecard. As big a development as that
was in the tournament picture, it got lost as the focus turned
to the journey that caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan made to Squeeky's
funeral, which was held last Friday. Fluff also lives in
Columbus and visited Squeeky on his off days. Cowan attended the
services with the blessing of his boss, Tiger Woods, who asked
Tim Boardman to fill in for the day. (This didn't seem to affect
Woods's golf--he shot 72, which was sandwiched between an
opening 72 and a 71-72 on the weekend, leaving him in 43rd
place. Eleven of his last 12 rounds have been in the 70s.)

Cowan hadn't planned to speak at Squeeky's funeral, but he says,
"I was moved to do it. I felt a little nudge. It was like Squeek
was saying, 'Fluff, you never keep your mouth shut, so get up

Leaning against a fence in the Westchester parking lot after
Woods's final round, Cowan sparked a Marlboro, took two
trembling drags and turned philosophical, which seemed to happen
to a lot of people last week. "Death sucks," he said, "but it's
only the end here on earth. I firmly believe that Squeeky is in
a better place." Whether it was coincidence or a sign from above
is hard to say, but Cowan had no sooner finished ruminating on
the hereafter than the Westchester grounds were rocked by
tremendous claps of thunder and the skies came alive with

The ensuing suspension of play could not have come at a more
interesting time, for Els's supremacy was finally being
threatened. The 27-year-old South African had so overpowered the
tight, twisty layout--not to mention the rest of the field--that
when he stepped to the 13th tee last Saturday he was 16 under
par and eight shots in front. A couple of sloppy bogeys down the
stretch and some inspired play by Maggert trimmed the lead to
three strokes heading into Sunday, but no one, save Maggert and
his immediate family, felt Els was in trouble, considering his
comfort level on the 6,722-yard, par-71 course. Els had finished
second, tied for fourth and first in three starts at
Westchester. Last year he also led start to finish, winning by
eight shots.

Els and Maggert, paired together, played four holes before the
rain came, and Els's bogey at the 3rd and Maggert's birdie at
the 4th cut the lead to one lone stroke, giving Els two hours to
stew. When their match resumed on the 565-yard, par-5 5th, Els
unleashed his power and considerable chutzpah, going
driver-driver just short of the green and then chipping to five
feet for an easy birdie. That pushed the lead back to two shots.
On the back nine Els ground out eight straight merciless pars
before matching Maggert's birdie on the easy par-5 18th. As they
walked off the final green, Maggert engaged Els in a friendly
tussle. "I was trying to push him into the green and smash him,"
Maggert said, and you could hardly blame him. A seven-year vet
with only one Tour win, Maggert had played the foil for Els for
two straight weeks, having finished fourth at the Open after
being tied for the lead with eight holes to play.

Els has been exceedingly gracious toward Maggert but not
altogether sympathetic. "What the hell, you can't stand out on a
golf course and feel sorry for anybody," Els says. "So be it if
they finish second again. That's life. It's something they've
got to live with."

There has been much heavy breathing about the physical gifts of
the 6'3", 210-pound Els since his breakthrough victory at the
'94 U.S. Open at Oakmont, outside Pittsburgh, but he is rarely
appreciated for his skills from the neck up. He is one of the
few players who has the mental toughness to excel in one-on-one
confrontations. Els is the only player to win three straight
World Match Play Championships, and he was a standout in the '96
Presidents Cup with a 3-1-1 record. Says Steve Elkington, his
teammate at Lake Manassas, Va., "Ernie may look laid-back and
easygoing and all those ways he's usually described, but I
wouldn't have wanted to take him on in a fistfight before those
matches. He likes that stuff."

Els has a strong athletic background. He was an accomplished
junior tennis player until he chose, at 14, to concentrate on
golf. He also played rugby and cricket while growing up, and he
still enjoys a pickup cricket match. In years past he regularly
organized a cutthroat match with players and caddies on the
beach in Jamaica during the Johnny Walker World Championship.

Although Els skipped college to turn pro at 19, he has a
masterly ability to think his way around a course, whether he is
lurking in the shadows, only to make a charge on the final day,
as was the case at the Open at Congressional, or executing an
aggressive game plan from the outset, as he did at Westchester,
where all week he attacked the course's vulnerable holes and
prudently played for par on the brutes. "My patience and my
ability to stick to a plan have been the real key the past two
weeks," said Els.

So too has his otherworldly talent. Why do we love Els's game?
Let us count the ways, with some help from Frank Nobilo, who
calls Els his closest friend on Tour and who recently bought a
house at Lake Nona in Orlando that's 350 yards from his buddy's.
"The scary thing about Ernie is that he's not playing out of his
mind right now," says Nobilo. "This is the kind of player he is.
He has no weakness. Other guys might be higher up in the driving
stats, but Ernie has more power in reserve than any of them.
He's the best player in the world out of the rough, in the same
class as Seve [Ballesteros] when he was in his prime. He can hit
his irons as high and soft or low and penetrating as he wants.
He's a magnificent bunker player. You know, growing up Ernie was
skinny and weak, and as a result he really focused on his short
game. You can see the evidence when he's around the green and
especially when he's putting."

That said, the most impressive thing about Els may be his
desire, which has been palpable the past two weeks. "He wants to
be a player of historic importance," says Elkington. "I know
that because he has told me. He covets the big four [the major

In an era when so many of the game's elite players flinch when
faced with the demands and pressures of being on top, Els's
attitude seems to be: Bring it on. Asked on Sunday if he was the
best player in the world, Els said, "Right now, at this time, I
would have to say so, yes."

Els looks ready for a long stay at No. 1, especially when you
compare him with the guy he bumped, Woods, who lasted one week.
Els has no interest in being a celebrity and sees no point in
filling up a bank with tens of millions of endorsement dollars
that he can't spend but that must be repaid with numbing
commitments of time.

"My life's not going to change because I won the U.S. Open," he
says. "It didn't change after the last one. I'm going to stay in
the same house in Orlando and the same house in South Africa.
I'm going to stay with the same companies. Lots of guys have a
great year and then they change everything, and they do it just
for the money. That's how you get into trouble. I've got enough
money to keep me happy for the rest of my life. What more do I

Els is so committed to putting his putting stroke ahead of his
portfolio that he is already making plans to sharply reduce his
playing schedule next season, despite the huge appearance fees
that are available to him. This is a radical departure from the
course taken by many Grand Slam champions, who chase the buck so
far that they seem to lose their games along the way. Els values
privacy and simplicity above all else. At Westchester he played
in relative obscurity as mobs of fans flocked to Woods each day,
trampling one another and golf etiquette with equal gusto. "I
didn't mind that at all," Els said of his light galleries. "I'm
getting enough attention. I don't want any more."

Els left Westchester for Orlando, where he and his longtime
girlfriend, Liezl Wehmeyer, are set to enjoy a two-week holiday
that will be heavy on fishing, backyard barbecues and movie
rentals. His scheduled return the week before the British Open,
for the Loch Lomond World Invitational in Scotland, will be
eagerly awaited. As Els proved last week, things are
considerably brighter when he's around.

COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Fans are starting to wise up to the fact that Els's wins on tough courses are a matter of mind over muscles. [Ernie Els golfing]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN F. GRIESHOP Cowan (center) and Price paid their last respects to Medlen, as players and caddies (below) flew his colors. [Mike "Fluff" Cowan and Nick Price at funeral]

COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN [See caption above--man with ribbon on back of cap]

COLOR PHOTO: WA FUNCHES JR./NEW YORK POST Mark Brooks (left) and Maggert could see that Woods was headed for trouble early in the first round. [Tiger Woods standing in hole looking up at Mark Brooks and Jeff Maggert]