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Big Easy ponders mysteries of beating Tiger on Sunday at a major

Els still searching for answers at PGA

Posted: Wednesday, August 14, 2002

CHASKA, Minn. -- Even after winning three majors and overcoming his own insecurities to win a British Open that nearly slipped away, Ernie Els still doesn't have the answer.

If he must beat Tiger Woods on the final day to win a major, can the man who has finished second to Woods six times dig down deep enough to do it?

His career is peaking and his confidence is massaged daily by a sports psychologist, yet Els doesn't seem totally convinced he can handle Woods' fastball if it comes down to those two Sunday in the PGA Championship.

Maybe that's what constantly failing against the No. 1 player in golf has done to the man who legitimately has the credentials to be No. 2.

''He's such a competitive player, when he's right on his game, he can blow other people out of the water quite easily,'' Els said Tuesday following a tuneup round with another chaser of the Tiger, Sergio Garcia.

''Let's face it, we are playing in the era of one of the greatest players ever, maybe the greatest. ... When he tees it up, he feels that he can win, and his record is pretty good,'' Els said.

Especially Woods' record against Els, who still might be fighting the psychological damage of squandering an eight-shot lead against Woods in the final round of the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand.

Then, in the Mercedes in 2000, the two exchanged the final round lead seven times and Els' eagle on No. 18 wasn't good enough to win. Woods also made eagle on No. 18, then won with a downhill 40-foot, against-the-grain, against-all-odds putts on the second playoff hole.

''If Tiger is on his game, he's such a competitor that he's probably still going to beat people,'' Els said.

Not all the time; Els has won six tournaments with Woods in the field, more than anyone else, and he held off Woods to win the 1999 Nissan Open in Los Angeles. But Els has never gone head-to-head with Woods on Sunday and won.

Before Muirfield, Els was clearly growing frustrated with his can't-beat-Tiger-when-it-counts label, saying, ''When I've played well, Tiger still has beaten me. What do you do? When I had it going, I still got beat.''

Even as the 32-year-old Els overcame the wind, rain, cold and the gale force of grand slam expectations for Tiger in the British Open, Woods wasn't a factor on the final day.

Still, Els said, ''I think the package is a little bit better than it used to be,'' suggesting the steps he has taken to pump up his ego, erase his self doubts and stroke his confidence are paying off.

It won't take him long to find out; Els is paired with Woods and defending champion David Toms at Hazeltine on Thursday and Friday.

''This is a great pairing,'' Woods said. ''He's won three major championships now and he's proven he can win the big one. It's going to provide a nice atmosphere if we ever get a chance to go down the stretch, in a major championship, that he's done it before and I've done it before.''

At least now, Els no longer deals with the mammoth expectations of the pre-Tiger days when, after winning his first U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994, Els was labeled the ''next Nicklaus'' by some and ''the next guy'' -- i.e., the sport's next superstar -- by Curtis Strange.

''I don't feel any more expectations for myself,'' Els said. ''I guess I've got to an age now where the media and other people really want to see young guys coming through, so I'm really not in the spotlight any more like I used to be.''

Now he can just be Ernie, even if he's not quite out of the Woods yet.

''My record is better now than it's ever been ... and, hopefully, by Thursday, I'll feel like I can really compete and I'm playing my best golf,'' Els said.

Then, seemingly contradicting himself, he flashed another of those woe-is-Ernie moments that have long confounded his friends, confidante -- and, no doubt, himself.

''I've got a lot of work left,'' he said.



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