The King of Wentworth

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All the important stuff in professional golf now is viewed through a prism. Its that time of year to be looking ahead to next year.
 
What did George McNeills smooth cruise to victory in Las Vegas Sunday mean to his confidence for next year now that his status on the PGA TOUR is no longer in question? Where will the remaining bubble boys finish in the final three Fall Series events?
 
What did the Sunday duel in the desert at the Samsung World Championship between Lorena Ochoa and Suzann Pettersen'won this time by Ochoa'mean for 2008 when we consider what looks to be the best new rivalry in the womens game?
 
Is Northern Irelands 18-year-old Rory McIlroy, with two top-5s in his last two Euro starts, the next big thing on the other side of the pond? And if so, how big?
 
And maybe the most compelling subject of all at the moment is the question of the immediate and intermediate term future of Ernie Els.
 
Els turns 38 Wednesday and it has been almost three and a half years since he won on the PGA TOUR at a venue in the States. There has been a knee injury and a prolonged recovery. There has been the renewed ascendancy of Tiger Woods. And there has been the incipient renaissance of Phil Mickelsons game under the tutelage of golf teacher/savant Butch Harmon.
 
Thing is, Els has still got it.
 
What it is is a glorious combination of power, touch, timing, tempo, athleticism, fundamentals and a keen distaste for defeat.
 
Never were all of his inordinate talents more on display than Sunday at Wentworth near his London home, where Els dispatched U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, 6 and 4, in the finals of an endurance contest called the HSBC Match Play.
 
This was the seventh time Els has won this event, whose format demands 36 holes of match play four straight days from the survivors in an elite field limited to 16.
 
Just minutes after dusting Cabrera, Els was quick to point out that a certain Mr. Woods wasnt here this week.
 
But in the next breath Els was quicker to point out, If I can play this way, obviously I can give anybody a go.
 
You can be sure Woods people will relay that quote to Tiger, who is on an extended break from golf since last months Presidents Cup and Decembers Target World Challenge.
 
And it should be pointed out that the tone of Els comments were more of a slap on the side of the leg to himself than they were a challenge to Woods. I need to play more golf like this, Els said. I wish I could move Wentworth around the world with me.
 
Cabrera, who actually played better golf than Els in the earlier rounds of the HSBC, agreed. He lives here, Cabrera said of Els and Wentworth, a splendid old Harry Colt parkland design. He knows the course and the greens like his own back yard, which it is'his own back yard.
 
Before the advent of Woods on the play-for-pay scene, the whole world was Els own back yard, He won one of his two U.S. Opens and a few dozen other events worldwide before Woods turned pro late in 1996.
 
No other top player other than Els has had more difficulty adjusting to Woods dominance. Perhaps no other top player has more potential to take Tiger down when both are playing their best.
 
Els win Sunday was about more than just his love affair with Wentworth and home cooking and home field advantage. Remember, if Boo Weekley hadnt chipped in twice in a row late Sunday at Harbour Town in April, Els U.S. dry spell would have ended. And remember, Els was right there with the more written-about Woody Austin getting in Tigers face down the stretch at Southern Hills in the final round of the PGA Championship won by Woods in August.
 
Prior to the HSBC, Air-knee, as he is referred to by the delightfully knowledgeable and erudite Scottish golf broadcaster Renton Laidlaw, had quietly clawed his way back to No. 5 in the world rankings. By Monday morning he had inched past Steve Stricker and into the No. 4 slot.
 
Looking ahead to next year, its no stretch to envision Els leapfrogging No. 3 Jim Furyk. It will take prolonged work to get past Mickelson at No. 2.
 
But as long as were talking about 2008, would having a Big Three of Woods, Mickelson and Els elbowing each other for all the big checks and major championships be such a bad thing? And is that an unrealistic expectation?
 
I think not. I hope not.
 
Email your thoughts to Brian Hewitt
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - HSBC World Match Play Championship