It was a one-sided argument that he usually lost.
'It was difficult for not only myself but for other players to really believe that you can go out there and play your game and think it's going to be good enough,' Els said Tuesday at Royal Troon.
That was at the height of Tiger Woods' incomparable run through the majors, when he won seven out of 11 majors, set scoring records in each Grand Slam event and held all four trophies at the same time.
Els showed up at Royal Troon with high hopes and in a new role - the betting favorite to win the British Open, the first time at a major since the 1997 Masters that the best odds were assigned to someone other than Woods.
And the Big Easy didn't need a betting slip to know that.
'Right now it's different,' he said. 'I feel that when he plays really well, he's going to shoot 67. But if I play well, I can shoot that score, as well. And I can keep doing that for three or four days. I think we're on a more level playing field now, and maybe because Tiger Woods has come back to the field a little bit.'
Ladbrokes listed Els as the 7-1 favorite Tuesday, with Woods right behind at 8-1.
To get an idea how much has changed in two years, consider that Woods was the 4-1 favorite going into Muirfield - not only to win the British Open, but to win the final two majors for the Grand Slam.
'Tiger will be back to his dominance, if not this week, very soon. I'm sure of that,' Thomas Bjorn said. 'But I just think everybody else sees themselves being able to play to that level.'
Maybe that's what gives this British Open a truly 'open' feel at Royal Troon.
Phil Mickelson has a green jacket to go with that wry smile, a winner at the Masters for his first major. The only thing that stopped Lefty from the first two legs of the Grand Slam was Retief Goosen, a smooth South African whose second U.S. Open victory might finally make people aware of his greatness.
'Where Tiger was and where he is now, I mean we're in different worlds now,' Els said. 'A lot of the players feel that we can compete with him now at the highest level. He's still playing great golf. He's still not that far off.'
Is he still No. 1?
Maybe not after this week.
Els had a chance to replace him last month at the U.S. Open. Two shots behind and playing in the final group, Els made double bogey on the first hole and crashed to an 80.
He gets another chance at Royal Troon, where a victory coupled with Woods finishing 17th or worse would end Woods' run of 257 consecutive weeks - dating to the 1999 PGA Championship - at No. 1 in the world.
'To be No. 1 in this day and age, with this many great players, would be quite something,' Els said. 'But for me, to win this tournament is more important. To win majors is more important for my career.'
Still, Els knows there is a long road ahead of him at Royal Troon, a links known for its tough inward nine holes, the tiny 'Postage Stamp' green on the 123-yard eighth hole and putting surfaces as pure as any in the British Open.
Mickelson has never finished in the top 10 at a British Open, his weak link in the majors. But he has never prepared so well for the Open, playing Royal Troon last Wednesday, on Friday after he missed the cut at Loch Lomond and Monday morning in what probably was his final tuneup.
Along the way, he has taken copious notes of where the ball is likely to wind up after traveling along the humps and bumps of the firm linksland.
'What I've tried to do this week ... is to understand where balls will tend to end up and try to be effective from there to the hole,' Mickelson said. 'I feel much more confident than I have in the past because I have come in and prepared properly.'
He also was prepared for a question about his chief rival, and whether Woods has lost an aura of invincibility.
'Well, that's a tough one to answer,' Mickelson said, before deciding to go no further.
Woods played another early practice round, teeing off by 6:30 a.m. and was off the course about three hours later. He doesn't have fond memories of Royal Troon, even though he shares the course record with a 64 in the third round during the 1997 British Open that helped him to a tie for 24th.
He came undone with a triple bogey on the 11th hole in the first round, a quadruple bogey on the 10th hole in the second round, and a triple bogey on the Postage Stamp on the final day.
All it takes is a couple of bad swings to get in trouble at Troon. And that's what has kept Woods winless in the last eight majors, with only one PGA Tour victory more than halfway through this season.
Woods didn't say his swing was 'close' because no one asked him - they have heard the same answer the last three months. But he has looked relaxed all week, not outwardly bothered by going two years without a major, or by the posse of players closing in on his No. 1 ranking.
'I've always played my best when I've gone out and stayed focused on what I have to do and not worry about anything else,' Woods said.
When he played his best, he almost always won.
Now, he might understand how Els and everyone else used to feel at majors.
Will it be enough?
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