Hot on Tiger's Heels
Els, with four wins already in '03, is making a run at No. 1
Tiger Woods is not unbeatable. Rich Beem (PGA), Peter O'Malley
(Match Play) and Craig Parry (NEC) proved that last year. Yet no
one has seriously challenged his position as top dog. Until now
...if we're lucky.
When Ernie Els won last week for the fourth time in five starts,
at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia, he didn't
simply take another step forward as a potential giant-killer and
cement his status as the hottest golfer on the planet. More
important, he became the first player since David Duval in 1999
to accomplish something, well, Tigeresque.
Els won the Johnnie Walker at 7,014-yard Lake Karrinyup Country
Club by 10 shots with a score of 29 under par, a European tour
record. In fact, because the event was also sanctioned by the
Asian and Australian tours, Els's score is a record on three
tours at once. This comes a month after he smashed the PGA Tour's
standard with a 31-under blitzkrieg at the Mercedes
Championships. Els is now 100 under par in his five tournaments
this year, and since taking the World Match Play in October he
has won six of his last eight starts.
At Lake Karrinyup, the 66 Els shot in the final round was his
highest score in four days. "It was an unbelievable week," he
said. "On the world stage I feel like I've stepped up another
Els is shrinking courses with his newfound driving distance. He
averaged 314.4 yards off the tee in Perth, up considerably from
his Tour average of 281.4 last season. Also, the short game that
helped Els win a pair of U.S. Opens as well as last summer's
British Open has never looked sharper. Let's summarize: Els is
monster long and is chipping and putting like a demon. Sound like
anyone we know? "Ernie winning again, that's pretty impressive,"
Woods said after his victory in the Buick Invitational.
What we've got here is a real rivalry, not the made-for-TV Tiger
versus Phil Mickelson kind. The funny thing is, Els and Woods
haven't played in the same event this year. As Els mopped up at
the Mercedes and the Sony, Woods was recovering from knee
surgery. Els has been playing in Australia and Asia since. His
hot streak sets up a showdown, but we may have to wait another
month before they square off. Els and Woods will both play the
Feb. 26--March 2 Accenture Match Play at La Costa, but as the top
seeds they'll be on opposite sides of the bracket, so they'd each
have to win five matches to meet in the final. Els and Woods are
scheduled to play in the March 6--9 Dubai Desert Classic, where
Els is the defending champ, but with war looming it's anyone's
guess whether they'll risk a trip to the Middle East, if the
tournament is held at all. After that, though, we'll get Els
versus Woods three times: the March 20--23 Bay Hill Invitational,
the Players Championship March 27--30 and the Masters in April.
Els is reluctant to play along. "I'm doing what I'm doing," he
said in Perth. "It's not me against Tiger or Tiger against me.
It's us against the course trying to win tournaments."
Sorry, Double E, it is you against Tiger. The question is whether
the new-and-improved you is a match for the same old Woods. So
far, your scores say yes.
Asked when he'll overtake Woods in the World Ranking, No. 2 Els
grinned, then said, "I don't know, and at the moment I don't
particularly care." He wasn't speaking for the rest of us.
Torrey Pines is made-to-order for the 2008 U.S. Open. Last week
Tour players struggled with the South course's 7,607 yards, its
thick kikuyu rough and the Bethpage Black--like difficulty,
failing to make a single eagle in the final round. Blend in the
ambience of a municipal course and San Diego's flawless summer
weather, and you have a venue that's sure to become a regular in
the Open rotation.
Here's how not to take advantage of a coveted sponsor's exemption
on the Champions tour: John Schroeder made the field for the ACE
Group Classic in Naples, Fla., by virtue of such an exemption,
but during the predawn hours of Feb. 12 was arrested and charged
with driving under the influence. Police said Schroeder failed
four field sobriety tests and had a blood-alcohol level nearly
twice the legal limit. Because he wasn't released from the
Collier County jail until that afternoon, Schroeder missed his 8
a.m. pro-am time and was disqualified from the tournament.
Schroeder did call the tournament office to ask if he could use
his courtesy car for one more day. Request denied. *One caddie's
happy, another isn't. Remember Osman Juaini, the Singapore
storekeeper-looper who went public with complaints that he'd been
stiffed by Chinese pro Lian-Wei Zhang after Zhang won last
month's Singapore Masters (prize money: $150,030) and paid him
just $700? Zhang claimed he'd given Osman all the money he had
and that he'd intended to send more until Osman insulted him.
Last week Zhang changed his mind and sent a check for $5,000 to
Osman, who called it "a wonderful surprise." Meanwhile, caddie
Ralph Hackett filed a lawsuit against Lee Trevino claiming the
golfer owes him $32,000. The suit says that Trevino agreed to pay
Hackett 10% of his first-place prize money, but when Trevino won
$620,000 at an unofficial event in August 2001, Hackett was paid
only $30,000. Trevino had no comment on the suit, but Hackett
told SI, "It's crummy that somebody who thinks he's more powerful
than a lowly caddie can sweep this away." *Tom Monaghan, the
founder of Domino's Pizza and the former owner of the Detroit
Tigers, is paying $220 million to build Ave Maria University near
Naples, Fla., and says the school, which he hopes to open in '06,
won't have coed dorms but will have three golf courses, including
one that Monaghan jokingly referred to as "a Catholic Augusta
National" for donors only. *The biggest surprise on the Champions
tour this year is that a slimmer, healthier Jack Nicklaus plans
to tee it up this week in the Verizon Classic in Tampa, marking
his third Senior start in four weeks and one more than he played
in all of '02. While Nicklaus was disappointed in his play at
last week's ACE--he finished 58th--he was encouraged that his
ailing back improved as the week went on. Does all this add up to
one more start at the Masters? "The Masters is probably too
difficult for me anymore," says Nicklaus, who last played Augusta
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG WOOD/AFP [INSIDE COVER] Who Els? Tiger's Real Rival Is Red-Hot G13 MAKING IT LOOK EASY Ernie Els won for the fourth time this year.
COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM WEST/AFP BRING HIM ON Els, who set records in Australia, could face Woods next week.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (NICKLAUS) JACK'S BACK Nicklaus has already played more events in '03 than in all of '02.
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