Archive for Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Woods, Els eye Sunday showdown

Golfers never have met in final pairing of major

July 16, 2003

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— Tiger Woods and Ernie Els have everything it takes to form a major rivalry except for one critical piece -- a Sunday showdown at a major championship.

Royal St. George's might be the perfect place to start.

Woods, without a major trophy for the first time in four years, shot down any suggestions he was in a slump two weeks ago by going wire-to-wire for a five-stroke victory in the Western Open, his fourth win of the season.

Els responded by leading from start to finish to win by five strokes at the Scottish Open last week at Loch Lomond, his fifth victory of the year.

They arrived at the British Open on top of their games, a collision long overdue.

Might this finally be the week?

"Yeah, I think so," Els said. "Tiger is playing really well. And I think from all the press he's getting -- not winning a major in a year, which I think is ridiculous -- I think he's going to try to prove something and have a good week. I'm looking for a good week. I've been playing well. Hopefully, it happens. I feel really good about this week. We'll just wait and see."

The prospect of Woods vs. Els has been brewing since the beginning of the year.

The Big Easy won the first two PGA Tour events in Hawaii, then added two more victories in Australia as Woods was recovering from surgery on his left knee.

A security official, center, watches as Mark O'Meara, left, and
Tiger Woods putt during a practice round for the British Open golf
championship at Royal St. George's golf course. The two practiced
Tuesday in Sandwich, England.

A security official, center, watches as Mark O'Meara, left, and Tiger Woods putt during a practice round for the British Open golf championship at Royal St. George's golf course. The two practiced Tuesday in Sandwich, England.

Woods returned from an eight-week layoff by winning three of his four tournaments.

But the majors?

Those belonged to Masters champion Mike Weir and U.S. Open winner Jim Furyk.

Woods finished out of the top 10 in both, falling out of contention with a bad swing at Augusta National and a bad third round at Olympia Fields.

"You're not going to win every one, but at least you can give yourself a chance on Sunday," Woods said. "That's one of the things I haven't been able to do."

Els finished better than Woods in both majors, but he was never a factor either. Part of that was due to a sore wrist from working out with a punching bag.

"I'm feeling physically as good as I've ever been," Els said. "My rhythm has come back nicely. My short game is good. My long game is good. There's no reason why I shouldn't be playing well now."

Els is the defending champion at the British Open, having survived a four-man playoff that required five holes last year at Muirfield. Still, he knows he's not the player everyone is chasing on the lunarlike landscape of Royal St. George's.

"Other players are getting better," Els said. "But Tiger is still there."

For Woods, there has been a revolving door of rivals since he crashed onto the PGA Tour with his 12-stroke victory in the 1997 Masters -- Els, David Duval, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and back to Els.

Even though seven players have won at least twice this year, the gap remains.

"After the first couple of majors this year, you would feel that the players are closing on Tiger, wouldn't you?" Nick Faldo said. "But I'm sure Tiger is more than aware of that. He's going to make a big effort this week."

Woods, as usual, won't be baited into a rivalry -- not even with Els, a close friend.

"There are more than just the two of us playing the event," he said. "If you were playing a match-play event, just he and I, one-on-one, that's a different story."

That wasn't a story at all at the Match Play Championship, when Els was beaten in the first round and Woods went on to win at La Costa.

But there is a history of dramatic battles among the best at Royal St. George's.

The last time the British Open was held on the links just north of the English Channel, in 1993, Greg Norman held off a collection of the world's best players -- Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Nick Price, Fred Couples, Corey Pavin.

Woods doesn't believe that was by accident.

"This golf course rewards quality golf shots," he said. "You can't go out here and play poorly and contend. You have to play solidly for 72 holes. And you've got to be very patient. If you look at the guys on top of that board in '93 ... all were playing well at the time."

One of those guys was Els, a 23-year-old who came to Royal St. George's looking for experience and shot four rounds in the 60s to tie for sixth.

That could be a huge advantage this week.

Luck and local knowledge might be as important as skill, especially with severely undulating fairways that can send even the best drives into the rough.

"Guys who have played here before definitely have a bit of an advantage," Els said. "It is a golf course unlike any of the other links. At times, you think you're playing on the moon."

Els is a student of links, his favorite brand of golf.

He won last year at Muirfield with two brilliantly played bunker shots, one on the fifth and final playoff hole that earned him his third major and a precious claret jug.

He had to return the trophy before arriving at Royal St. George's. He would like nothing better than to leave with it cradled in his arms.

Even sweeter if it comes at Woods' expense.

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