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A Season to Remember

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After incurring a number of moments in 2000 he would like to forget, Ernie Els is hoping this will be a week to remember.
 
Els tied his season-low aggregate score, 64, to take the solo lead after the first round of the Tour Championship at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Ga. At 6-under-par, Els is one stroke clear of David Duval, who shot 65. Last week's runner-up Steve Flesch is tied with Davis Love III for third place at 4-under-par. Phil Mickelson stands in fifth place alone at 3-under; while lefty's first-round playing companion, Tiger Woods, is four off the pace after opening in 68.
 
Els has finished runner-up on five occasions in 2000. But did you know he's also won twice? Yes, due to the frequency and the magnitude of his defeats, we tend to forget that the South African is a multiple worldwide winner this season.
 
Els captured the European Tour's Standard Life Loch Lomond one week before his tie for second at the British Open; two weeks later he won The International on the PGA Tour.
 
But those two wins pale in comparison to his silver-medal performances. Els opened the season by losing to Woods in a playoff at the Mercedes Championships. He then finished second to Vijay Singh at the Masters. Next came a tie for second at the Memorial Tournament, then back-to-back runner-ups at the U.S. Open and British Open - all three of those defeats came at the hands of one Mr. Woods.
 
Yet, perhaps Els' most disappointing performance came two weeks ago at the Presidents Cup. Representing the International Team, the two-time U.S. Open champion played in five matches. He lost them all.
 
'It's nice to be at the top of the leaderboard,' Els said following his six-birdie, no-bogey 64, 'especially after what happened two weeks ago, which was probably the worst golf of my year.'
 
Following his dismal effort in a losing cause at Prince William County, Va., Els took some time off. He went with his family to the Bahamas, where he hardly touched a club.
 
The extended rest seems to have positively affected the smooth swinging South African, though, he's the first to tell you - 'the lead right now doesn't mean anything.'
 
The top 29 players on the 2000 PGA Tour money list are in attendance this week. And while Tiger has already wrapped up the money title and PGA Player of the Year honors, there's plenty to play for - namely a $900,000 first-place check.
 
Flesch and Love would dearly love to pocket that enormously obscene chunk of change, but even more so, the two would like to claim victory at the expense of the Tour's top players.
 
Love, who, like Els, has finished runner-up to Tiger on too many occasions to count, is vying for his first Tour title since the 1998 MCI Classic. On the other hand, Flesch is still in search of his maiden victory on the PGA Tour.
 
Last week, the left-hander was on the cusp of capturing win No. 1. Flesch took a two-shot lead into the final round of the National Car Rental Classic at Walt Disney World, only to be passed by a surging Duffy Waldorf on Sunday.
 
Though he didn't win, Flesch garnered a lot of confidence from the experience. The 33-year-old played in the final group with Tiger Woods in each of the final two rounds, matching the world's No. 1 ranked player with rounds of 66-69.
 
Once again, Flesch is back in contention, and so too is Woods. Thursday, Tiger carded a pair of birdies on the 7th and 8th holes, his only red numbers of the day, for a first-round 68.
 
'This golf course is such that if you start driving the ball poorly you're going to make bogey,' said Woods, who hit eight of 14 fairways on Thursday. 'I hit a couple of loose shots today, but was able to make par just grinding it out.'
 
Thirteen of the 29 players in the field broke par in the first round; David Toms was one of them. However, this year's winner of the Michelob Championship couldn't have been pleased with his 1-under-par 69.
 
Toms started the day with four straight birdies before three-putting the 5th for a bogey 5. The four-time Tour winner went out in 3-under-par 32, but came home in 2-over 37. Toms carded two birdies, one bogey and a double-bogey on the inward half.
 

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