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Woods Els Look to Renew Rivalry

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PGA Tour (75x100)A record score. An improbable shot. A stirring comeback. Sounds like more show-stopping feats by Tiger Woods, only he hasn't played a competitive round of golf in the last two months while Ernie Els has been winning tournaments.
 
The Big Easy, as he is called, won the Heineken Classic in Australia for his third victory of the year, giving golf what has sorely lacked the past few years ' a serious challenger to Woods.
 
``He has always been the guy that I thought had the ability to get better and contend for No. 1,'' said two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, a golf analyst for ABC Sports.
 
``Ernie's knock has been heard, does he have the get-up-and-go? If there's ever a time, it might be now because of his start.''
 
Bringing together the top two players in the world could take some doing.
 
While the 32-year-old South African has been traveling around the world and winning almost everywhere he goes, Woods has been recovering from knee surgery in Florida and won't return until at least next week in San Diego.
 
The first tournament where both are scheduled to play is the Match Play Championship at the end of the month. They wouldn't face each other until the finals, and the top two seeds rarely advance all the way in 18-hole matches.
 
The following week, both are supposed to play the Dubai Desert Classic in the United Arab Emirates. Those prospects are in doubt as the United States moves closer to war.
 
Els is in no hurry.
 
``It will come to a head sooner or later, and you guys are probably going to write it up quite a bit now,'' Els said. ``I'm going to stick to my guns. Hopefully, with this form I'll have a good chance of playing against any field.''
 
Despite winning two U.S. Opens, Els was in jeopardy of becoming known as Woods' favorite whipping boy.
 
No one has been runner-up to Woods more often than Els ' six times ' including four tournaments in 2000 when Woods shattered one record after another.
 
Els began working with sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout and decided to worry more about his own game than whether it was good enough to beat Woods.
 
He held off Woods at Doral last year, added his third major at the British Open and then really took off. He has won five of his last seven tournaments dating to the World Match Play Championship in England, where he shot a 60 early in the event.
 
``I kept it going,'' he said. ``This game is quite amazing sometimes.''
 
He finished last year by winning the unofficial Nedbank Challenge in South Africa by eight strokes over Colin Montgomerie.


 
This year, only his equipment and endorsement deals changed.
 
Els blitzed the winners-only field at Kapalua to win by eight strokes at 31 under par, a PGA Tour record. The next week in Honolulu, he won on the second playoff hole over Aaron Baddeley with a 55-foot birdie putt from the fringe.
 
Just when it seemed his global travels were catching up with him, Els shot 66-65 for the weekend at Royal Melbourne to win by one over Nick Faldo and Peter Lonard.
 
It was reminiscent of when Woods recovered from a 10-stroke deficit to win the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany two years ago, closing with 63-66.
 
``This one is good ... sweet,'' Els said. ``I haven't come from behind for quite some time.''
 
The only blip was at the Singapore Masters, where Els blew a final-round lead and lost to unheralded Zhang Lian-Wei of China with a bogey on the last hole.
 
Still, Els is leading the money list on the PGA Tour and on the European tour, and Woods will have some catching up to do when he returns.
 
``Don't think Tiger isn't chomping at the bit,'' said Strange, who has talked with Woods during the past few weeks. ``He doesn't miss a thing. I still think Ernie has to be sharp to beat him, but the gap looks smaller because Ernie is playing so well.''
 
There has been a revolving door of rivals for Woods, starting with Els.
 
He won his second U.S. Open immediately after Woods won the '97 Masters with a record score (270) by a record margin (12 shots).
 
Woods made up eight strokes on Els in the final round of the Johnnie Walker Classic in 1998 to win in a playoff. Els responded one month later by putting 13 strokes between him and Woods during a 36-hole Sunday at Bay Hill.
 
Since then, however, it has been all Woods.
 
David Duval won 11 times in 34 tournaments to replace Woods at No. 1 briefly in 1999. Phil Mickelson has won more tournaments than anyone but Woods over the last five years.
 
Still, no one has served up such a tantalizing threat.
 
``It's certainly going to be interesting,'' Strange said. ``It has nothing to do with rooting against Tiger. As a player, I want to see Tiger pushed. I want to see how good he can be. I don't think golf needs this, but it's going to be good.''