2003: Tiger who? Focused Els raises the bar
Ernie Els arrived in Hawaii with a new sponsor, new clubs, new golf shoes, a new bag, a new golf ball and a renewed sense of inner belief.
After spending the past few seasons trying to be the perfect player in pursuit of you-know-who, Els said on the eve of the Mercedes Championships that it was time he concentrated a little less on Tiger Woods and a little more on his own game.
“You know, I got talent myself,” Els said. “I really want to compete well again doing my thing, see where we go.”
Four days later, he relished where he had gone – right into the PGA Tour’s record book. At the windless, defenseless Plantation Course at Kapalua, the Big Easy shattered the tour’s 72-hole scoring record in relation to par, closing with a 6-under 67 Jan. 12 to finish at 31 under and win the Mercedes Championships by eight strokes.
The previous mark was 28 under, set by John Huston at the 1998 Hawaiian Open and matched by Mark Calcavecchia two years ago in the Phoenix Open. Els finished at 261, breaking David Duval’s tournament record by five shots. (Calcavecchia’s 256 at Phoenix stands as the Tour’s benchmark for low 72-hole score).
Woods is home in Florida recovering from knee surgery that will keep him off tour for at least the first five weeks, but his presence in Hawaii might not have mattered. Els went wire-to-wire, overcoming a sluggish start on the front nine of his final round to pull away from K.J. Choi with birdies on five of his last seven holes.
Els, who switched to Titleist clubs in the offseason, led the field in both driving distance (323.4 yards, 21 yards ahead of No. 2 Vijay Singh) and putting, a lethal combination.
He is now No. 2 in both the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index and World Golf Ranking.
It was an important start for the 33-year-old South African, who lost two good chances to win at Kapalua in the previous three years. One of them was to Woods in a sensational duel that Woods won on the second playoff hole, setting the tone for his record-setting 2000 season.
Rocco Mediate, who closed with a 63, tied Choi for second place at 23 under. Mediate also was the runner-up when Calcavecchia shot 256 at Phoenix.
“I’m the only player who can say he got beat by the lowest score in history – twice,” Mediate said. “I don’t see a problem with Ernie challenging Tiger for the next however many years. I certainly think Tiger would love for that to happen. He likes to be pushed.”
Els won $1 million for his 11th career victory on the PGA Tour, and sits atop the money list for the first time in his career. He now has won eight times worldwide over the last 13 months, including his victory in the British Open, his third major. The eight-stroke margin was the largest on the PGA Tour since Calcavecchia’s Phoenix triumph in 2001.
In the coming weeks, the globe-trotting Els will be off to Singapore, Australia and Perth before returning to the United States for the WGC-Accenture Match Play in late February. He hopes the Mercedes is the start of something big.
“You know, this is really a perfect start,” Els said, “something I probably needed.”
– Staff and wire reports