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New Approach to Chasing Tiger

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- It's hard to imagine Ernie Els getting worked up about anything. Hey, he's the Big Easy, the guy with the sleepy eyes, the comfortable grin, the soothing demeanor.
Truth is, the South African has been tormented by his pursuit of Tiger Woods, allowing it to affect every aspect of his game.
Els jokes about the 'little guy' on his shoulder, the demon who tells him to go for shots that have little chance of working, who keeps whispering 'Tiger, Tiger, Tiger' in his ear.
'If you start playing Tiger on Thursday from the first tee, that's the wrong way to go about it,' said Els, expected to be one of Woods' main challengers at the Masters after taking two weeks off to heal a sore wrist. 'You're going to beat yourself up and not play your normal game.'
A year ago at Augusta National, Els let his preoccupation with Woods ruin any chance of winning the tournament.
Woods was leading on Sunday when Els went to No. 13, hoping to take a big chunk out of the deficit with an eagle on the par-5 hole. He pulled out a 3-wood and tried to steer his tee shot around trees hugging the left side of the dogleg.
Instead, Els yanked the ball into the woods. To make things worse, he tried two impossible shots from the foliage, putting them both in Rae's Creek. He wound up taking a triple-bogey 8.
'I was trying to really get it around the corner and have a shot at eagle and all that stuff,' Els said. 'But after the tee shot, I was dead. And then I just made mistake after mistake. After that first mistake, I was trying to rectify it as quickly as I could. Subsequently, I just got myself deeper in a hole.'
It doesn't take a psychology degree and a couch to figure out why he is so preoccupied with Woods.
At age 24, Els won the first of two U.S. Open titles. He was the rising star in the world of golf: imposing in size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), dashing in looks and immensely talented.
He never really got a chance to enjoy his reign. In 1997, Woods signaled the start of a new era with a 12-stroke victory at the Masters. Since then, this sport has been Tiger's World - everyone else just has a tee time.
Over the years, Els has finished second to Woods in six tournaments around the world, more than anyone else. Two of those came in 2000, when Woods romped to record-breaking victories at the U.S. Open and British Open and went on to win four straight majors, the first player to do that in the modern era. Els wondered if he would ever get another chance.
'My focus wasn't channeled in the right direction,' he said. 'It was more channeled toward players instead of the golf course and the shots that I have to play.'
Els brought in famed coach David Leadbetter to work on his swing and, just as important, Belgian psychologist Jos Vanstiphout to work on his psyche.
'The first thing I told him was to forget about Tiger,' Vanstiphout said. 'Tiger wasn't the issue. He was the issue. Instead of changing the person, you have to change the way the person thinks.'
So far this year, the results are evident.
While Woods was recovering from knee surgery, Els became the first player in 14 years to win the first two PGA Tour events of the season. He won twice more against good fields in Australia.
Then came a reality check. Els and Woods went mano-a-mano at Bay Hill in the third round. It wasn't really a fair fight - Els had the sore wrist, Woods had a four-shot lead - but the world's best player solidified his spot by finishing the day with a 10-stroke lead. By the end of the next day, Woods was 19 shots ahead.
Els, it seems, is still a work in progress.
'Whenever Tiger gets into a tournament, pow!' Vanstiphout said. 'There's five times more press, more security, more attention. Ernie has got to learn to live with it, and he will.'
Make no mistake, though: Els is learning.
With his career threatening to drift off course last summer, he came through with his third major victory at the British Open. Woods wasn't a factor, shooting a wind-swept 81 on Saturday, but Els still had to overcome his mental demons.
He had a big lead on the back nine until a double-bogey on 16 left him one stroke behind. It's not farfetched to say Els was at a crossroads.
He had a remarkable birdie at 17, then parred the final hole of regulation to force a four-man playoff. After four extra holes, only Els and Thomas Levet were left. Els parred the next hole to claim the Claret Jug.
'The British was definitely the start of maybe the resurgence of my golf game,' Els said. 'If I didn't get through that tournament, if I didn't win that tournament, I think I would have been a different player right now.'
Vanstiphout puts it another way.
'It would not have been the end of him,' the psychologist said. 'It would have bloody killed him, though.'
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