Els Woods Finally Meet

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- With war impending, to say Tiger Woods and Ernie Els will do battle at Bay Hill is an injustice to those serving in the armed forces.
 
But for the first time this season, the top-2 ranked players in the world will face off in the same field of a stroke-play event.
 
Im just excited to play this week, Els said. To have a field like this with Tiger in it really enhances it a little bit more for myself.
 
This isnt the first time the two have played in the same tournament. Both were among the 64 participants in the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, but Els never got a chance to shake Tigers hand as Els was bounced in the first round, while Woods won.
 
This week should prove more dramatic. Els and Woods each have phenomenal records at Bay Hill.
 
Woods is the three-time defending champion. He is trying to become the first player since Walter Hagen (PGA Championship, 1924-27) to win the same PGA Tour event four consecutive years.
 
This is the third time he's had the chance to win four in a row. He failed in his bids last year at the Memorial and the WGC-NEC Invitational.
 
I like my chances, because I like to compete, Woods said of this opportunity.
 
Put it this way, Ive done it three different ways. Three years ago, I hit the ball pretty good (and won by four). The second year, I slopped it all over the place and made absolutely everything (and won by one). Last year, I plodded my way along and just played real smart (and won wire-to-wire).
 
'It's not like I've come out here three straight years hitting the ball absolutely perfectly for 12 straight rounds. I've made my share of mistakes and still been able to win, and that definitely brings confidence.'
 
Els tied for ninth a year ago. It was his best Bay Hill finish since he became the only foreign-born player to win, in 1998.
 
This, however, is a far different Els than the one who outlasted Woods and Davis Love III on a 36-hole Sunday five years ago.
 
No disrespect, but I felt almost like Corey Pavin in that group, Els said with a laugh. I was sometimes 30, 40 yards behind.
 
Today, equipped with modern technological marvels, Els would currently be leading the tour in driving distance if he had enough rounds under his belt. The burly but smooth South African has played in only two stroke-play events in the U.S., winning them both. First, he set a tour 72-hole scoring record at the Mercedes Championships, and then followed up with a Hawaiian double at the Sony Open.
 
This is Els' first stroke-play event on tour since January. He enters slightly on the injured side, having sprained his right wrist last week.
 
'I've got this punching bag in London in my garage, and I was thinking of taking some frustration out on it, but I'm not a pro,' he said. 'So I kind of twisted my wrist a little bit.
 
'I've had some treatment on it and it really feels good today...I think I'll be fine now by Thursday.'
 
Of course, 'frustration' is just a manner of speaking. Overall, he has won four times around the world this season -- and set another 72-hole scoring record on the European Tour. Were it not for a pair of missed putts on the final holes in Dubai and Singapore, he might be 6-for-7 in terms of winning in 2003.
 
'I've seen him hit the ball like this before, but I have not seen him roll the ball as consistently day-in and day-out as he has been,' said Woods.
 
Woods has been no slouch himself. Coming off of knee surgery, he has two victories in three starts, including a win in his debut at the Buick Invitational, and feels he's striking the ball as well as he has since the start of 2001.
 
Woods said Els' quick start in his absence certainly got his attention, but didn't overly concern him.
 
'I knew deep down in my heart that I could not compete against him at that moment, because I wasn't physically ready,' he said. 'That definitely put my mind more at ease from that standpoint.'
 
While Woods has spent most of his time resting in Orlando or winning in San Diego, Els has traversed the globe.
 
This year, Els has traveled from London to Hawaii, from Hawaii to Singapore, from Singapore to Australia, from Australia to California, from California to Florida, from Florida to the United Arab Emirates, and now back to Florida.
 
Going through different time zones all the time, that takes it out of you a little bit, Els admitted, before adding, Ive had my weeks off in between a lot of events, so Ive had my family with me which makes it easier.
 
Ive always done this kind of a schedule before the March swing startsits just been kind of normal to me.
 
Said Woods: I think if he played a more limited schedule it might hurt him because hes accustomed to playing. He plays his way into shape, whereas, some other guys like to practice their way into shape.
 
With war looming, though, Els schedule will alter. Hell be spending more time Stateside and at his London home.
 
The world is really changing a lot at the moment, Els said. I might go across to London and so forth, but I will not be going to Asia or anywhere close to the Middle East.
 
Nor is there a need to in the immediate future. The Players Championship is next week, with the Masters three weeks on the horizon.
 
And though much has been made of a belated Els-Woods match-up, both players realize that this is just a tune-up for the weeks to come.
 
Although you want to win (any week), its the majors where youre going to hang everything out, said Els, who added that the majors are the true measure as to how close ' or how extreme ' the gap is between the worlds No. 1 and No. 2.
 
'The real head-to-head rivalry like maybe Nicklaus and Watson and even Weiskopf and Johnny Miller and those type of people -- I think we've got that group. We've just got a guy (Woods) that's so much better (than anyone before him),' said Els.
 
In 1997, when Tiger won the Masters and Els won the U.S. Open, the two were considered chief rivals. Woods has since been on the plateau, but David Duval and then Phil Mickelson supplanted Els.
 
Now, its Ernies time again.
 
My expectations have risen a little bit in the last year or two, and I just feel that if I dont step up now, I probably never will. Im at a time in my career where Ive got to really go for it or Im not going to do it at all, he said.
 
Just kind of go all out for a while and see what happens.
 
Woods, for one, sees the rivalry budding and says he looks forward to the challenge.
 
I guess you might say we are at the beginning stages of it. I do have to say, though, that if theres any player in the world that Ive competed against more down the stretch in a tournament, its him. And thats not just on our tour, its around the world, he said.
 
I thoroughly enjoy it. I think we both enjoy it.
 
Related Links
Full coverage of the Bay Hill Invitational