It happened again at the Mercedes Championships. Els has been there before, playing adroitly while sending his challengers gurgling down the drain. This time, it was something extra special, a brilliantly played week in which he set a PGA Tour record of 31-under par.
But oftentimes in the past, he has had a lot of trouble sustaining the brilliance. Will we see that again? Are we expecting too much? Is there really only one Tiger? Or can Ernie build upon the last two or three times hes played golf and truly be a Tiger challenger?
Els, a South African who is 33 now, supposedly is at the peak of his golfing abilities. But he has this one huge handicap working against him. He is a world player.
The abrupt change of scenery, be it Hawaii one week, Australia the following week, South Africa the next, on to England for a couple of tournaments, then back to America, make it very difficult to purr along at that consistently high level. But he enjoys playing around the world, and furthermore he feels it his obligation as both a South African and a European Tour member to take his golfing tools and play the big events around the globe. The fact that he has a home in Orlando and is also a member of the U.S. tour is merely a sidelight. Els is a world player in every sense of the word.
Come February, Woods is supposed to return. Until then, Els will face the same litany everytime he wins a Tiger-less tournament. We know, though, that one of three scenarios exist: A, that Els has become a Woods equal and will prove an equal competitor whenever they bump heads; B, that Els is an equal competitor but gets Tiger-itis when they meet up head-to-head; or C, that Els just isnt in Tigers league.
Up to now, Els has occasionally been a B, where he has been psyched out mentally by Woods, but mostly a C, where Tiger has been clearly superior.
We revisit Ernie-Tiger again because of Els excellence the past month. He blew the entire field away at the Sun City tournament. Only 12 players were in the field, but it was a pretty good cross-section of players from around the globe. And Els shredded the field by eight strokes.
Then at the Mercedes, which matches the 2002 winners, Els beat the elite of the PGA Tour by eight. Of course, one player was missing from both fields ' fellow by the name of Woods. Would Ernie have beaten Tiger during both of those golden weeks? Probably. But then again
Els is not going to dwell on that question. He beat the field, whoever bothered to show up, and that is just about all that he can do. He didnt just beat them, but beat them both by eight shots.
You know, I really cant worry about that, Els said when asked the same question. Im just happy I played this well this week. I'm not trying to send a message to anybody. I'm just trying to prove to myself that I can play well, just keep improving on the things that I'm working on the mental side of the game, the physical side of the game. I'm just trying to improve.
Let's see where it takes me. I've just got to keep on working, keep my discipline. We'll talk later again. I'm not trying to send a message to anybody.
Rocco Mediate watched Els obliterate the field at Mercedes. He shuddered a little when he thought of it, the way that everything Els tried seemed to work. Tiger may not be that far out in front now, Rocco says.
Ernie doesn't miss anything, said Mediate. He's not missing a part of his game. What is he bad at? Nothing. I mean, he drives it 400, chips and putts as well as anybody on the planet, he's a good iron player. He has been for how many years?
Of course, how many years has Tiger been the absolute best? Ernie played nearly as well as humanly possible in the 2000 Mercedes, but lost to Tiger in a memorable duel when Woods sank a long putt in the playoff. Els was banished to second place ' or worse ' for the next couple of years.
I mean, Tiger went on a streak there which I don't know if we'll ever see again, Els said. You know, the way he played, the way he hit the ball, the way he putted, just everything he did was obviously unbelievable.
Unfortunately for me, I was just caught up in that kind of whirlwind of his. I kept on finishing second. Then the next year, I was trying to, Okay, now I'm going to do this now.' That wasn't quite me. I think that was the problem I was in.
This is a new time, a new Ernie, a new season. It may be the best hes ever played. But is it enough? Can he do it over the course of an entire year, when he will have to face that same nemesis ' Tiger ' 10 times or so?
Dont ask Els. He isnt the kind to get into head-to-head comparisons. He doesnt put the same pressure on himself as, say, Phil Mickelson. And dont ask his him, for goodness sakes, why he is hitting every single shot, making every putt, at the moment.
I cant tell you ' I cant answer that question, he said.
But Ive got my name on my bag.
Meaning that he, like about 500 other fellows, is a professional golfer. He just happens to be playing the best of any of the 500 at the moment.