Not As Easy As He Looks

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SANDWICH, England ' Ernie Els strolled Royal St. Georges grounds Tuesday evening. Decked out in a suit minus the jacket, which was draped around his arms, he walked at a brisk pace.
 
It didnt take long for people to take notice. Whispers grew more audible. Signature seekers and well-wishers made their moves. One man even snatched a pen from a kid so that he might obtain the autograph of the worlds second ranked player.
 
Els never broke stride. Neither did those tagging along, and that number seemed to grow with each step.
 
Its hard to secure a shade of anonymity when youre the reigning Open Champion. Even more difficult when you stand 6 foot, 3 inches.
 
Hes nicknamed The Big Easy. A moniker that accurately describes his syrupy swing but belies his competitive nature.
 
Though it may not be exposed on the surface, the 33-year-old South African wants desperately to win ' particularly major championships.
 
That fire burned brighter than ever in 2002 at Muirfield, and almost caught him ablaze.
 
Els nearly blew everything that Sunday: A three-stroke lead on the back nine, the everlasting impression of his Harry Houdini bunker shot at the 13th, his most coveted prize.
 
Not winning a major for almost five years, I think it started building in me. And when I had the chance last year ' I was quite tense last year, Els said.
 
Hearing the Syren's song, Els nearly wrecked his ship with a double bogey at 16. But a birdie at 17 and a two-putt par at the last assured a chance at professional salvation. Five more pars later, he had held off Thomas Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby, and claimed his first major title since the 1997 U.S. Open.
 
I made those mistakes, but I prevailed in the end, he said. And it gave me a hell of a boost.
 
To say the least.
 
Els won the Cisco World Match Play and the Nedbank Challenge later that year. He then won the first two events on the PGA Tour in 2003, and two more tournaments in Australia.
 
Then, for reasons he never fully explained, Els popped a punching bag. And the punching bag popped back, injuring his right wrist.
 
He tried to downplay the damage, but the effects were obvious in his results. He didnt contend in the Masters or U.S. Open. And simply put, he stopped winning.
 
That was until last weeks Barclays Scottish Open. Like in the days of old ' or back in February ' Els struck a hot iron early and waltzed his way into the winners circle.
 
Meanwhile, back in the States, Tiger Woods was winning the Western Open, with equal ease.
 
For Ernie, it was win No. 5 on the season. For Tiger, No. 4.
 
Thanks to knee surgery, Woods was sidelined during the Ernie Els World Domination Tour. But when he returned he promptly reminded everyone that this was still his stage, and he no designs on sharing.
 
Woods won three of his first four tournaments out of the blocks, but, like Els, cooled off considerably thereafter. Tiger had only one top-10 in a span of six starts before corralling another trophy at Cog Hill.
 
So here they are. The worlds top 2 players. Both fresh off victory.
 
I think there are more than just two of us playing the tournament, cautioned Woods.
 
Yes, but the prospect of a 1 versus 2 Sunday showdown is too exciting. It become even more enticing when you consider that the last time Royal St. Georges hosted an Open, in 1993, most of the top players in the world were in the running.
 
Woods is major-less in over a year. And if he doesnt repeat, Els will be so after this week. Both want very much to return or remain, as the case may be, a reigning major champion.
 
Woods has won this championship before, doing so at St. Andrews ' the second of four consecutive major titles ' in 2000. That year, Els entered the Open a winner at Loch Lomond ' just as he does this year. Of course, it didnt work out for him three years ago.
 
Tiger played some different golf that week, he said in a manner that still offers bewilderment at Woods eight-shot win.
 
By contrast, Els entered last year's Open with but a strand of confidence. And look at him now. After a two-week break to recharge the batteries following the Buick Classic, he is again beaming with the assuredness born at Muirfield.
 
I feel like I want to play again, Els said. Ive brought form and Im feeling good.
 
My short game is good. My long game is good. Theres no reason why I shouldnt be playing well now.
 
This is Els second trip to Royal St. Georges. He played as a bright-eyed 23-year-old a decade ago. One who entered without expectation, but left with a tie for sixth place and an extreme boost in esteem.
 
I had a good learning experience in 93. I definitely did not come here trying to win that championship, I was just trying to make enough money and learn, and thats what I did that year, said Els. I had a very good tournament.
 
And so he hopes for another one this time around. Only, this time a good tournament will not result in a competitive top-10. It will only be had in becoming the first player since Tom Watson, in 1983, to successfully defend his title.
 
When asked about his chances to do so, the opportunity to make more history, to add to his legacy, and even beat the best player in the world in the process, Els answered with ease: I really feel good about this week.'
 
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