There was a chance that golf’s big story of a couple weeks ago – this Tiger Woods-Ernie Els drama – might have faded away. Had either Woods or Els had a so-so showing at their respective tournaments last weekend, golf fans might still have been searching for that potential challenger to Woods’ status as the best on earth.
But Woods cruised to victory at the Buick Classic by four strokes in his first tournament since knee surgery. And Els blistered the PGA European Tour’s Johnnie Walker Classic with a record-shattering 10-stroke victory, establishing a scoring record in Europe to match the one he set on the PGA Tour five weeks earlier.
Don’t worry. The drama lives.
The potential for a showdown looms at the WGC-Match Play Championship Feb. 26-March 2, although it would take an unprecedented pairing of the tournament’s top two players. Nos. 1 and 2 never have met in the Match Play finals, an event that, in its short history, has delivered such finals as Jeff Maggert-Andrew Magee (1999), Steve Stricker-Pierre Fulke (2001) and Kevin Sutherland-Scott McCarron (2002).
Woods was ousted in his first match last year by No. 64 Peter O’Malley and has made the finals once, in 2000, when he lost to Darren Clarke. But if ever the stage was set for a departure from the norm, it would seem to be now. Els is the hottest player in the world, and Woods returned as if he’d never left.
Woods has taken note of Els’ early-season tear. He is well aware that Els has won four times in five events this season, and that it might have been 5-for-5 had it not been for one sour 18th hole on a Sunday in Malaysia. Els let that tournament slip away by one stroke – the lone blotch on an otherwise sterling start.
“It’s pretty impressive what he’s been doing,” Woods said. “He’s putting up some great scores, some great numbers.”
As for Els, he continues to downplay the possibilities of a showdown.
“I’ve said, week in, week out, I want to be competitive and I want to feel I can win tournaments when I play,” he said. “So far, I’ve been doing that and I want to keep doing that. I want to keep improving . . . I’m sure a lot of other players are trying to do the same thing.
“It’s not me against Tiger or Tiger against me. I think it’s us against the golf course and trying to win golf tournaments.”
Els has been remarkably successful in “trying to win golf tournaments.” He’s won five of his last six tournaments and six of his last eight. He took his game to still another tier in Perth.
With rounds of 64-65-64-66 – including 29s on the back nine in the first and second rounds – at Lake Karrinyup Country Club, Els won by 10 shots over Stephen Leaney and Andre Stolz. A group of five players 12 back included Robert Allenby and Retief Goosen, last year’s runaway winner.
Els’ record-breaking assault marked his 13th European Tour triumph. Already the holder of the 72-hole record in relation to par on the PGA Tour – he shot 31 under at the Mercedes Championships in January – Els’ winning total of 29-under 259 at the Johnnie Walker was the lowest winning score in relation to par ever recorded on the European Tour. He edged the previous best of 27 under (261) shared by Jerry Anderson (1984 Ebel European Masters-Swiss Open) and John Daly (2001 BMW International Open).
The day before, Els had also set the European Tour record for 54 holes (23-under 193), and his 10-shot margin of victory was the largest in the tournament’s history, beating Goosen’s eight-shot triumph last year. Here’s a little more: Els’ totals after each round were, respectively, the lowest of the 2003 season, and his third-round lead and winning margin were each the biggest of the year.
Yeah, he’s hot.
The world might be a bit surprised by the South African’s tear, but his “mind coach,” Jos Vanstiphout, who has worked with Els for 11/2 years, is not among those in shock.
“What Ernie is doing right now – and I’m not exaggerating – this is normal,” Vanstiphout told The Age, a Melbourne, Australia-based publication. “That’s how good a player he is. This is nothing special. I’m not surprised.”
And Vanstiphout has a message for the world No. 1.
“The world will be surprised,” he said. “Especially Mr. Woods.”
Els refuses to get into the one-on-one possibilities with Woods, but Vanstiphout seems eager to sling an arrow or two. He says Els is past his “Tigeritis” phobia, and that the world No. 2 is ready to take the next step.
“It’s something that creeps into your mind, but (Woods) is not unbeatable,” Vanstiphout said. “Excuse me, Tiger is good, but Tiger is not God.”