Even at a distance, Woods-Els rivalry builds more steam

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Tiger Woods and Ernie Els are the talk of golf, even though they haven't been within 6,000 miles of each other in almost four months.

Call this a rivalry in absentia.

They are on the same golf course for the first time since the Tour Championship at East Lake, but unless they bump into each other on the practice range or in the lunch room at La Costa, they might not see each other at the Match Play Championship.

The following week in Dubai -- if they go -- might not be much different.

Ditto for Bay Hill, and maybe the Masters.

"That's the problem with our game," Woods said. "It's very hard to play well all the time. And on top of that, we don't play that many events together. But I think if there's anyone I should come down the stretch with, it would probably be Ernie."

Imagine the top two players squaring off in the 36-hole final at La Costa.

"Not real likely," Woods said.

The top two seeds have never made it through five 18-hole matches since the Accenture Match Play Championship began in 1999. In two of the four years, the top 10 seeds were gone by the weekend.

That doesn't mean a Woods-Els rivalry will lose any luster.

It helps to have the best two players going head-to-head, particularly in the major championships. But the meat of any rivalry in golf is winning, and both have done that better than anyone else lately.

Els has won 11 times in the last 14 months, including four of five tournaments this year. Woods has eight victories during that stretch and whipped the field at Torrey Pines when he returned from knee surgery.

This is not the first time Els has stepped into the ring.

The Big Easy won his second U.S. Open, in 1997 at Congressional, just two months after Woods won the Masters by a record 12 strokes. The next year, Woods rallied from eight strokes behind in the final round and beat Els in a playoff at the Johnnie Walker Classic.

A month later, Els was 13 strokes better than Woods in a 36-hole Sunday at Bay Hill.

Since then, Woods' rivals have walked through a revolving door.

Mark O'Meara. David Duval. Vijay Singh. Phil Mickelson.

What made them rivals was winning majors (O'Meara, Singh), winning a lot of PGA Tour events (Mickelson) or a little of both (Duval).

Woods rarely went head-to-head with any of them.

Duval is the only player other than Woods to be ranked No. 1 over the last four years, and the only time they got together during the height of their rivalry was in the made-for-TV "Showdown at Sherwood."

"I was winning more than him, and I had a chance in a few of the majors," Duval said. "It would have helped to win head-to-head wherever it may be, but I don't think that matters until someone does that in a major."

That's where Woods has no rival.

After beating Duval at Sherwood in 1999, Woods won the PGA Championship. It was the start of an amazing run in which he won seven of 11 majors.

"The problem you face is that until the pattern changes -- or if it changes -- of Tiger winning two majors a year, you're going to be looking for a rival," Duval said.

"And you're not going to meet up to that standard.

"People get tired of talking about him, but there's nothing else to talk about, unfortunately -- for me and everyone else. You've got to talk with your sticks."

At the moment, Els is shouting with clubs.

He became the first player in 14 years to win the first two PGA Tour events of the season, winning at Kapalua with a record 31 under par.

Els won twice in Australia against strong international fields. He is 100 under par in his five tournaments this year, despite having traveled 38,000 miles (that includes a week's vacation in Bali, and another last week in Hawaii).

Woods against Els in the final at La Costa would be the most compelling battle since:

a.) Woods beat Sergio Garcia and Mickelson at the U.S. Open last year.

b.) Woods beat Mickelson and his superior equipment at Torrey Pines two weeks ago.

c.) Woods beat Mickelson and Duval to win his fourth straight major at the 2001 Masters.

It all comes back to Woods.

Still, as much money as Mickelson won, as hot as Duval was in 1999, a renewed rivalry of Woods vs. Els might have the most substance.

"This is what we've all been wanting to see," Nick Price said. "Is there someone playing his best who can beat Tiger when he's playing his best? You'd be hard-pressed to say Tiger could beat Ernie the way he's playing now.

"If he can bring that game to the U.S. and stay focused, I think we're going to have a very exciting year."

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