PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — After one of his many crushing losses to the world’s No. 1 player, Ernie Els once described Tiger Woods as a legend in the making. Woods was 24 at the time with only two majors.
“He’s probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s,” Els said after losing to him in a playoff at Kapalua.
Now if he can only get Elvis to leave the building.
Because that looks to be the only way the Big Easy can achieve his grandiose goal of becoming No. 1 in the world.
Whether he was simply trying to motivate himself or he truly believed it, Els said toward the end of the 2006 season that he was giving himself three years to reclaim the No. 1 ranking, a spot he has not occupied in nearly 10 years.
The demons were gone from 2004, when he had a chance to win all four majors and came up empty.
The scars were healed from torn knee ligaments the following year.
“It’s a hell of a task, but I really believe I can do it,” Els said on the eve of 2007.
Then he watched Woods win seven times, including another major, and build such an enormous lead in the ranking that a three-year plan looked out of reach even in dog years.
“Let’s get serious,” Els said in a preview to his 2008 season. “I have got two years left of my original plan. I have got to start winning tournaments – fast!”
Then came another devastating blow in Dubai.
Els had the 54-hole lead and was four shots clear of Woods until a finish that was all too familiar.
Woods dropped five birdies over his final seven holes, while Els twice missed par putts inside 6 feet to slip behind. Els’ last chance came on the par-5 18th, where a birdie would have forced a playoff. He had 240 yards to the green, but his 5-wood caught a gust and found the middle of the lake, not the ripple effect Els had in mind.
Els walked toward the drop area with his head down and his spirits even lower.
He wrote of his disappointment the next day in his weekly diary on his Web site, but the real frustration was evident by the fact Els never mentioned Woods by name.
“I have to put behind me what happened last week in Dubai,” Els said. “It’s history. There’s nothing I can do about it now.”
Els has been runner-up to Woods seven times, more than any other player, and only a bogey at the final hole that dropped him into a tie for third kept that number from going even higher.
The knee is fine. The game is healthy.
The mental scar issue is another matter.
“It’s definitely more mental now than physical,” swing coach David Leadbetter said Tuesday at Pebble Beach. “It’s getting aggravating now. It’s happened a number of times in different locations. But as I’ve said to him, he can’t get down on himself. It’s not as if he played badly. But when Tiger is in that mood, it’s tough.”
There have been plenty of audacious comments that relate to Woods over the last couple of years, and Els’ stated goal to be No. 1 in three years has to rank among them. What separates it from Rory Sabbatini saying Woods looked “beatable as ever,” or Ian Poulter saying that when he reaches his full potential “it will be just me and Tiger,” is that Els has a track record.
Since Woods first became No. 1 in the world, Els is one of only three players to have replaced him, although for the shortest time (nine weeks). The others were David Duval (15 weeks) and Vijay Singh (32 weeks).
Els had every reason to believe he could return to No. 1 based on his ability.
What he didn’t take into account was Woods.
There is no denying that the three times Woods lost the No. 1 ranking, he was in the middle of changing his swing – after winning the ’97 Masters (Els, Duval) and in 2003-04 (Singh).
“People ask why we don’t stand up to this guy,” Thomas Bjorn said. “The fact is we are not as good as he is. It all depends on Tiger.”
Woods now appears to be in full flight. Since he tied for 12th at the British Open, he has won six of his last seven tournaments. The exception came at the Deutsche Bank Championship, where he tied for second.
How are you going to beat that?
Els was a victory away from returning to No. 1 in the world in 2004, and he had splendid chances until losing a playoff to Todd Hamilton at the British Open and three-putting from 100 feet on the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship to miss a playoff by one shot.
Padraig Harrington is among those players who do not share their goals. He was asked Tuesday if he ever aspired to be No. 1 in the world, and the Irishman smiled and said, “If I have, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“You never get your goals out there, because you’ll be judged by them,” Harrington had said in an interview the day before. “By trying to motivate himself, he’s put more stress on himself.”
That’s what Els now faces.
His biggest battle is against time, and not just the two years remaining on his goal to catch Woods. He is 38, and he doesn’t have the body or the fitness discipline of Singh, who played his best golf after turning 40.
But the bigger problem is Woods.
“We’re in the era – probably – of the greatest player ever,” Nick Faldo said Tuesday morning. “It’s a tough time for these guys. He is forcing players to change.”
The one thing Els might need to change is his goal.
What also motivates the Big Easy is to win the career Grand Slam, which for Els means winning the Masters and PGA Championship. Right now, that would be far more realistic to attain than No. 1 in the world.
The sooner Els drops his obsession with Woods, the better his chances.