LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Ernie Els knows better than anyone what it's like to finish second behind Tigers Woods. Twice in the last two majors by 23 strokes. Five times in Woods' last nine victories.
He also knows there is a difference between finishing second and getting beat.
All Els wants out of himself in the PGA Championship is four good rounds.
''I don't want to think about how I'm going to beat Tiger, or how the field is going to beat Tiger,'' he said. ''As I've said, he's probably going to win it. But let's see if I can do my thing, and we'll see what happens.''
What has happened so far is unprecedented.
Not only has Woods shattered scoring records in becoming the youngest player to complete the Grand Slam, but Els has carved his own niche in the record books.
Before him, no one had ever finished second in three straight majors. The only other player to be runner-up in the majors three times in a single year was Jack Nicklaus in 1964.
''On paper, it is unbelievable,'' Els said.
On the course, it has been a different story. The only legitimate chance he had to win was the Masters, where he missed three medium-range birdie putts on the last three holes and finished three strokes back of Vijay Singh.
He trailed Woods by 10 strokes after the third round of the U.S. Open and wound up 15 strokes behind. He was eight strokes behind going into Sunday at St. Andrews and that was the final deficit.
''Those were good finishes,'' Els said. ''But obviously, they weren't as good as what it is made out to be.''
Els knows what a good finish really is -- even if the result was the same.
Seven months ago, Els flew halfway around the world to Hawaii with his health good, his game sharp and his hopes high. Over four days, he matched Woods shot for shot in the Mercedes Championship, following him into the 18th hole with an eagle to force a playoff.
But Els wound up in a spot that has become all too familiar -- second place -- when Woods rolled in a double-breaking putt from 40 feet on the second extra hole.
''His ability to do what he does at the right time ... that's the genius he is,'' Els said. ''But when I'm on, I can play with the guy. That's what I need to do.''
No one has been able to do that this summer in the majors. Now, Woods goes into the PGA Championship with a chance to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three majors in a year, and the first player in 73 years to repeat as PGA champion.
Woods began his final preparations at 6:45 a.m., as a light fog dusted the thick, Kentucky bluegrass that frames every fairway at Valhalla. His mood was light, his shirt soaked in sweat before the sun could even rise over the trees.
Clearly, the heat is on.
But the pressure is just as great on Els, Phil Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and Hal Sutton, who are seen as the chief challengers to Woods making more history. It is not an easy task.
''It Tiger plays like he is capable of playing, he is tough to beat. He's proven that,'' said Mark Brooks, who won at Valhalla four years ago. ''If the guy is stronger, faster, smarter, all the other things, he usually wins. Right now, I think he is right there. I hope he's peaked.''
There is reason to believe Els can get into contention -- a lot different than simply being on the leaderboard -- when Sunday rolls around. In his last four tournaments, he has won twice and finished second twice.
The victories came over Tom Lehman and Montgomerie at Loch Lomond, and over Mickelson and Greg Norman at The International. The second-place finishes were in the majors, to Tiger.
''Ernie has got to be taking positives from this because he beat the other 150-whatever guys in the field,'' said Nick Faldo, who in 1988 finished second, third and fourth in the last three majors. ''Tiger is just in a class by himself. Ernie has got his three silver medals. He's just got to put four good rounds together.''
Els has been getting closer. He has reached a level in the last month where he no longer thinks about anything but taking back the most graceful swing in golf and letting it rip.
All he lacks is all he wants -- four good rounds.
He played only one solid round at Pebble Beach, and fell from contention at St. Andrews when he followed his opening-round 66 with an even-par 72. From there, he faced the hopeless task of trying to catch Woods.
''Sometimes you can play some really good golf and somebody else just plays better,'' said Tom Lehman, the only man to play in the final group of the U.S. Open four straight times without winning. ''Tiger has played really phenomenal. There's not much you can do about that. When the top players are hitting on all cylinders, they can really distance themselves.
''I think when Ernie plays his best, Ernie is going to win.''
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