Bring On Ernie


The defining moment of Tiger Woods' tour de force victory at the Buick Invitational Sunday at Torrey Pines came on the 11th hole. It was a crystal-clear moment of truth. And it revealed itself after Woods had rifled a 231- yard 4-iron that inhaled the flagstick and stopped dead on line three feet short of the hole.
The subsequent birdie putt was a foregone conclusion as was the final outcome. Woods would win easily. Phil Mickelson, two shots behind Woods at the start of the final round and playing in the same group, would dissolve in a fade-to-black collection of desultory pars. So discombobulated was Mickelson by Woods' power and cleverness after a layoff of several months, that by the time they got to the 18th hole, Mickelson forgot to let Woods walk up the green by himself.
It was an honest mistake, and one Woods didn't appear to notice. His mind was elsewhere. As in halfway across the world where Ernie Els was decimating a strong field at The Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia. Els finished 29 under par and triumphed by a numbing 10 shots. He has won five of the last tournaments he has entered. And he is 100 under par this year.
Els also has done something Woods has never done. And he has done it in the last five weeks. He has set the 72-hole scoring record (in relation to par) on the two strongest tours in the world. First, he pole-axed the PGA Tour field in early January at the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii, finishing 31-under (despite two double bogeys). Then this - the 29-under in Perth, an official European Tour event.
That's 60-under for two tournaments, a number with which I am not familiar. Woods wasn't in either of those fields. But Tiger has been a professional golfer since late 1996. And he has never gone that low in 72 holes on our tour or in his semi-frequent appearances on the European Tour.
What is sure to heat up in the ensuing days and weeks is the anticipation of Woods vs. Els in their first head-to-head meeting of 2003. Woods is still ranked No. 1 in the world by a large margin. Els is No. 2. But the debate will center around which of the two is playing the best golf right now.
Which brings us back to that 4-iron on the par-3 11th at Torrey Pines. At that precise moment, Woods left the Buick field in his rear view mirror. The shot wasn't so much a statement as it was an illustration of how much better he is than everybody else, except, perhaps, Els.
The next time the two will appear at the same venue is the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa. That event starts a week from Wednesday. It's unlikely the two will meet head-on because, as first and second seeds, they would both have to advance to the finals. Match play is trickier business than 72 holes of medal. Upsets occur with greater frequency. If Woods and Els do make it through, strap on your seat belt. It will be a 36-hole, duel to the death golf cage match that will need no hype.
More likely the two will square off at Bay Hill the third week of March. Then there will be The Players Championship a week later. Don't count on either going to Dubai two weeks before Bay Hill because of the threat of war in the Middle East. Two weeks after The Players is the Masters. The stakes grow.
Woods' 4-iron was a reminder. You can jump on Ernie's bandwagon right now. And you will have a lot of company. Just don't forget the kind of golf Woods is capable of producing. Especially when someone is pushing him.