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Els Tiger Brewing Up a Real Rivalry

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Were still waiting any time now would be OK, oh sons of the Stars and Stripes.
 
Now its six and counting. In case you havent noticed, none of Uncle Sams golfers have won on Uncle Sams tour in the last six events. The year 2003 has been a complete washout for those born in the United States, as was the last two events of 2002. Through two tournaments in Hawaii, one in Phoenix and now near Palm Springs, and the final two last year, the results have been the same - anyone can win as long as he doesn't have an American passport.
 
The past three years it has been the LPGA with Swede Annika Sorenstam, Korean Si Re Pak and Aussie Karrie Webb winning most of the events. Now the men are doing it, too.
 
South African Ernie Els won the first two. Vijay Singh, born in Fiji, won Phoenix, and Mike Weir, a native of Canada, got the other. And Els, for one, shows no signs of backing down.
 
Outwardly, the only thing different this year from the last is a new driver and ball. That combination has added nearly 40 yards on his tee shots. He is swatting it nearly 320 yards per whack this year, up from 281 last year.
 
Of course, every player has access to that same driver and ball. So that fact alone cant be the difference. Maybe its his putting ' he stands 10th on the PGA Tour in this important category after finishing 35th last year. But should those statistics alone account for this kind of difference in the tournaments he has entered?
 
It has to be a little bit of the inward difference, too. You dont win the first two events on the U.S. tour, finish a stroke out in Singapore, and win again in Australia without some serious head games going on. Thats three wins in four tries, with the other a second in perhaps the easiest event yet ' the Caltrex Open. Methinks ol' Ern has begun to believe in himself.
 
Actually, this whole thing started at the end of last year. Ernie won the Cisco World Match Play in late October. Then he won the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa - by eight strokes. Both have only 12 players, but the small fields are filled with pretty good players. You have to play some pretty impressive golf to win them, even if you only have to beat 11 other players. Els marched though them all in the match play, then blew away the field in the Nedbank.
 
Still, the hubbub at the end of last year wasnt overly unusual. But winning the first two events on the PGA Tour this year IS unusual. The Mercedes Championships didnt have Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, and neither did the Sony. But, hey ' he beat everyone who showed up. And when he went on the road to a near-miss at Singapore and a victory last week in Australia at the Heineken ' whoa, Nellie! This is getting downright serious, dont you think?
 
Obviously, the first thing you point to is ' no Tiger. Hes down in Orlando recuperating from knee surgery. He wont be back for a couple of weeks. For the record, he hasnt been present for any of Els five victories. So lets get that excuse out of the way at the outset.
 
Having said that, maybe we ought to start looking a little more closely. Maybe weve got something here ' maybe Woods is about to get a serious challenge for the U.S. money title. Its especially critical the first month or so when Tiger will undoubtedly be getting his rust-proofing in order. By the time Woods is in full stride in Florida and ready to go, Ernie may have a money lead that is impossible to overtake.
 
There is one caveat, of course. Els is not going to play in the U.S. any more than Tiger, even with Tigers reduced scheduled. Els is determined to play around the globe, and he will play his usual complement of European Tour events. The fact that he plays in Australia, the Far East, South Africa and Europe as well as America stretches him awfully thin. Els has to do a burn-out somewhere in mid-season. Uh ' doesnt he?
 
Ernie has put in his magical three-month splurge, interestingly, just after the birth of his son. That gives him two children now, proof again that you dont have to be single to be a great golfer. Much has been made of the fact that Tiger hasnt wed, and a lot of fellas held out hope he would one day be undone by marriage. Els would seem to suggest that such a prospect is merely hogwash. You can be married and have children ' and be among the worlds best. See Els and Mickelson for proof. See, Duval, David, for another side of the same equation.
 
For the moment, Els is the best golfer on this planet. Woods himself has definitely noticed. Tiger has undergone the knife and is coming back. But if he doesnt come back ready to go, will he have started too far back? For the first time in four years, Tiger may have competition.