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Burning Question Who's No. 1? Ernie Els offered a clear-cut answer in his personal life, but out on the Tour the issue is still in doubt

Ernie Els returned to the PGA Tour last week in Irving, Texas,
after a three-week trip home to South Africa and answered at
least one of the questions that have been plaguing golf. No, it
wasn't that question. Els finished 63rd at the GTE Byron Nelson
Classic, 15 shots behind winner John Cook, and served no notice
that he was ready to lay undisputed claim to being the world's
top player, a title hotly pursued by the likes of Tiger Woods,
David Duval and Justin Leonard. Instead, Els put to rest the
inquiry that has dogged him for more than five years, or since
he began dating Liezl Wehmeyer: What's taking you so long to

So after Els clearly outdistanced Cook in congratulatory hugs
and handshakes from Tour players and their wives--Wehmeyer said
yes to his question, popped a fortnight earlier--he seemed
poised to address that other unresolved matter with the U.S.
Open looming and the heart of the golf season at hand. "It gets
a little tiresome," Els says. "What can I say? I can't say, 'I
don't think of the other guys.' Of course I do. It's healthy
competition. We let you guys do the talking. In journalism,
you've got to make an argument."

As a two-time champion, he might find the Open the appropriate
place to state his own case for No. 1. In 1994, Els teed off at
Oakmont as a 24-year-old rookie delighted that he had just won
enough money with a second-place finish at the Buick Classic in
Westchester to earn his Tour card. Five days and 92 holes later,
he won the title, surprising no one more than himself. "If you
go to Europe, here, wherever, you don't just walk out on the
Tour and start winning," he says. "I walked out and won the U.S.
Open. I felt that maybe the guys thought I got lucky. I tried to
prove to people it wasn't luck."

So when the 1995 majors rolled around, the Big Easy, as Els is
known for his swing and his demeanor, became the Big Uneasy.
"Instead of me doing it for myself," he recalls, "I was trying
to show the public, friends, everybody. I tried too hard."

Els missed the cut at the '95 Masters and, as defending
champion, missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
In the 11 majors since, Els not only hasn't missed a cut, but
with his steel-nerved stretch run at Congressional last year,
has also won his second Open title. This time around as
defending champ, he is approaching the Open with his more
customary calm. "It's only after the second U.S. Open win that I
changed my outlook," he says. "What gives you confidence is
playing well in the majors. That's what all of us work for.
That's where you get respect, where you force respect, winning
majors and playing well in them."

Els dropped to No. 2 in the World Ranking two weeks ago after
Woods won in Atlanta but moved back to first on Sunday even
though Tiger finished 12th at the Nelson. He believes the debate
about who's No. 1 won't cease until some members of the
contending quartet get into a final-round showdown in a major.
Until then, the most innocent of comments will be analyzed for
gamesmanship. During a teleconference for the San Francisco
media last month, Els said he would be surprised if Woods played
well in the Open at Olympic. His hardly revolutionary
explanation--that Tiger's strengths are not catered to by the
course's narrow fairways and thick rough--got lost when
reporters gave his comment a more provocative slant.

"I don't want to shoot myself in the foot," Els says. "Tiger
said it himself. At Valderrama, they took the weapons out of his
hands. Olympic is the same thing. I'm not saying he hasn't got
the game. I'm saying the course is not best suited for it."

Woods may actually feel more comfortable at Olympic than Els.
"It's like a home course to me, either that or the San Francisco
Golf Club," says Tiger, who spent as much study hall time as
possible at those two courses during his two years at Stanford.
"At Olympic, I know how to play the ball. I played there so many
times. You have to shape your shots well."

If Mark Twain's comment that the coldest winter he spent was a
summer in San Francisco proves apt, Olympic may not be
hospitable to Els. One of the reasons he and Liezl spend 350
hours a year on airplanes is that he chases hot weather. Els
played in the United Arab Emirates, Australia, South Africa and
Thailand this year before he won at Bay Hill in March. By
sticking close to the equator at the beginning of the year, he
misses the Tour's California swing. "I don't know how it will
change when we have the world tour," Els says. "The bulk of it
is in the U.S. It doesn't bother me too much, but if you're
going to call it a world tour, make it a world tour."

In five years, Els has played once at Riviera (the 1995 PGA),
almost once at Pebble Beach (the two rounds of the canceled 1996
AT&T) and once at Olympic, where he finished 17th in the 1994
Tour Championship. The USGA won't set up the course as
charitably as the Tour did. "Olympic is a little different," Els
says. "Most of the Opens I've played in have been on the East
Coast. I love the older golf courses, the big trees, the
bentgrass fairways and the poa annua [on the greens]. I feel at
home on an East Coast golf course."

Cook, on the other hand, had nearly all his success on the West
Coast for the first 16 years of his career. In the last three
seasons, however, he has won three Tour events east of the
Rockies. Cook certainly looked comfortable on the TPC Four
Seasons Resort course over the weekend, when rounds of 66-65
brought him home at 15 under, with a score of 265. The win
capped two weeks of encouraging news. Cook hasn't played well of
late--he missed two of four cuts before the Nelson--and he
attributes his slump to not feeling well. Without providing
details, he said last week that he had undergone a battery of
tests while home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., earlier this month.
"When your body just isn't working, you wonder, 'Is it me or is
my game really this bad?'" he said. "It's nothing dangerous. I
was feeling crappy, and I wanted to know why. I still don't feel
great, but I'm better."

Cook won by three shots over Tour rookie Harrison Frazar, Hal
Sutton and Fred Couples, who repeated the most painful elements
of his second-place finish at the Masters. At Augusta, Couples
knocked a six-iron into Rae's Creek on number 13, made double
bogey and lost control of a tournament he had led for three
rounds. On Sunday, after losing a five-shot advantage to Cook's
barrage of birdies and his own sudden inability to put the ball
in the fairway, Couples again knocked a six-iron into the drink,
this time the pond fronting the 171-yard 17th. A pitch and three
putts later, a hole that might have soothed the pain from the
Masters instead ripped off the scab. The long-term prospect for
Couples's recovery is good, however. It hardly needs repeating
that he is not the introspective type.

"So I'm going to have to buy a new six-iron," he said on Sunday.
Later, when asked about how to balance his third top-three
finish (the other was at Houston, without the late-round
aquatics) in the last six weeks against the disappointment of
blowing leads, Couples said, "I don't learn anymore. I have
learned enough. All you do is just live with it. I'm not 28
years old where I go home and say, 'Man, I can't wait to do it
again,' because I know next week I should be able to do it again."

If Couples is the Tour's most well-liked golfer, then Els and
Wehmeyer are one of its most well-liked couples, perhaps because
they are both warm people unaffected by success. Wehmeyer, who
grew up on a farm in Stellenbosch, South Africa, balked at
giving a tale of the tape on her engagement ring because, she
says "materialistic things aren't important." Suffice it to say
that the round solitaire is bigger than a carat, smaller than a
Titleist and as flawless as the Big Easy's swing. "I didn't want
to see any color," Els says. "It had to be clear. Some have
yellow. Some have purple. I wanted a clear stone. It's very,
very difficult to get that."

In a blow to the national pride, the most famous athlete in a
country known for its diamonds had to go to a Belgian jeweler
after a three-month search to find what he wanted. Once he
bought the stone two weeks ago, Els began plotting a romantic
proposal. He was thinking of a restaurant, soft lights and good
wine--up until the moment one night at home when he pulled the
diamond out of his pocket and dropped it on the floor. "What is
that?" Wehmeyer said.

Els, in full panic: "What do you mean?"

Wehmeyer asked again. Els, still a three-wood away from
composed, said, "It's a rock I picked up."

Moments later, he surrendered peacefully, gave Wehmeyer the
diamond and popped the question. "The way he asked me was so
him," she says, laughing. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
Els's assessment: "I'm useless."

Els and Wehmeyer own a home in Orlando, where tennis star Jim
Courier, one of Els's close mates, recently spent several weeks
while his own house was being constructed. But they are most
excited about their new property in South Africa. It's an
84-acre farm in George, near the Fancourt Golf Club, which is
Els's home course. Though Wehmeyer grew up on a farm, it was Els
who fell in love with the place. "As we went through the gates,"
he says, "I told Liezl, 'Don't get too excited, but I want it.'
I still wanted to get the price down."

They have about 30 sheep, 15 head of cattle and two dogs. When a
ewe died during their recent stay, Els and Wehmeyer awoke daily
at 7 a.m. to give bottles to two orphaned lambs. For a city kid
like Els, who grew up in Johannesburg, the work is a revelation.
For Wehmeyer's family, when Els does any work, it is a
revelation. "While we were home, Ernie told one of the papers he
was helping build fences," Wehmeyer says. "He watched people
building fences." Her parents suggested framing the article.

World traveler that he is, Els declined the 35-minute drive to
the Colonial this week. Instead, he will play at the Volvo
European PGA Championship in Surrey, England. He will return to
the U.S. for the Memorial, take off a week in Orlando, then try
to win his third consecutive Buick Classic before heading to
Olympic. "I'm 28 now," he says. "I'm going to get to my peak.
The next five years are really important to me. Hopefully, 10

By then, that other question should be long resolved.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK LONG GONE A three-week trip to his native South Africa was not about golf, and Els finished 63rd, 15 shots back at the Nelson. [Ernie Els golfing]

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL TURNING POINT Cook (above) avoided the drink at 17, while Couples triple-bogeyed there to conjure up bad memories of the Masters. [John Cook golfing]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK ELS'S BELLE Ernie may be a klutz when it comes to engagement rings and work around their farm, but Liezl still has a ball with him. [Liezl Wehmeyer and Ernie Els]

"I can't say I don't think of the other guys," says Els. "I do.
It's healthy competition."