Els Lefty Has Edge on Tiger at Augusta

By Associated PressApril 12, 2006, 4:00 pm
2006 Verizon HeritageHILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Ernie Els sees a shift at the Masters.
 
He suspects that Phil Mickelson -- with two Masters titles in three years -- may have eclipsed Tiger Woods as the golfer to beat at Augusta National.
 
'I think Phil has got the game there now,' Els said Wednesday.
 
Ernie Els
Ernie Els signs autographs during Wednesday's pro-am at Harbour Town.
Els was the only one of golf's 'Big Five' -- Mickelson, Woods, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen -- competing at the Verizon Heritage, which starts Thursday.
 
Els has witnessed Mickelson's Masters rise. Mickelson's breakthrough major came two years ago at Augusta National when his 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole sealed a one-stroke victory over Els.
 
Then last week, Els was paired with Mickelson for the first 36 holes as he steadily played himself into contention. Els was impressed with Mickelson's control off the tee, the trajectory of his irons and his continued wizardry around the greens.
 
Plus, Mickelson is no longer burdened with the question of when he'll win Augusta.
 
'He just goes out and goes about his business,' Els said. 'So I think Phil, almost more than Tiger, has got more Masters in him, maybe.'
 
Mickelson will have to double his Masters' output to catch up with Woods' four green jackets. And both have work to do to tie Jack Nicklaus' record six Masters titles.
 
Chris DiMarco doesn't see a shift at the top at Augusta. He lost in a playoff to Woods there last year and says the course features are ready made for Tiger.
 
'Phil is a great player. I have a lot of respect for his game, it's awesome,' DiMarco said. 'But that course sets up great for Tiger. If (Woods) putted at all like he normally putts ... it would've been closer.'
 
Els is trying to close in on his elite form. He's recovering well from last season's injury, when he did not compete from July to December after surgery to fix a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. 'I'm physically quite fit at the moment, and the leg was fine,' Els said. 'The game wasn't quite there.'
 
Els shared seventh at the Ford Championships at Doral and tied for eighth at The Players Championship last month. Els was tied with Mickelson at 2-under par halfway through the Masters last week. That's when things fell apart, Els going 74-76 on the weekend to fall from contention.
 
'I've got myself in certain positions already, the last couple of weeks, the last month,' Els said. 'But I just, for some reason, haven't sustained it or haven't gone forward on to the next little stage.'
 
Harbour Town is as good a place as any for Els to take that step.
 
Els has had five top 10 finishes in seven appearances. Those have included a couple of disheartening defeats.
 
Els squandered a five-stroke lead in the final round here in 2000 as Stewart Cink won the first of his two Verizon Heritage crowns. Three years ago, Els was again in front on Sunday when he drove out of bounds on the 16th hole for a double bogey, then closed with two more bogeys to tie for 10th.
 
Still, Els feels he'll eventually earn the tartan jacket that goes the Verizon Heritage champion.
 
'I love this place,' he said. 'You've got play good, tidy, aggressive golf here.'
 
Part of the appeal, Els says, is it isn't anything like the week before. Els rents a house on the resort island, bikes with his family and relaxes at the beach.
 
'Do all the tourist things,' he said, laughing.
 
It's an approach Jim Furyk can understand, to a point.
 
'A lot of guys say it's like they get to decompress after Augusta,' he said. 'If I wanted to decompress, I think I'd go on vacation rather than come back to work. But it's definitely a little bit more relaxing week.'
 
Els hopes to unpack a Masters' championship ahead of Harbour Town, no matter who's got the hot hand at Augusta National.
 
'I've had a couple of really good (Masters) finishes, so I know what it takes,' Els said. 'And definitely, I have the game. Yeah, I'm still looking forward to winning that tournament.'
 
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