The sound of the cicada whirring in the trees at Muirfield Village made
the atmosphere at The Memorial sound as electric as it felt. And the way
Ernie Els responded to an early charge and some late magic by Tiger
Woods in the final round made it seem as if The Big Easy is not only
ready for the U.S. Open, but that he's also entering the second major
championship of the year no longer locked into a mindset that Woods is
Els looked very much Sunday like he is the man to beat next
week at Shinnecock Hills.
It was 10 years ago at the U.S. Open that Els, then 24 years old,
elbowed his way onto the world's stage with a playoff victory at
Oakmont. When he won a second U.S Open in '97 at Congressional, just
three months after Woods stormed to a 12-stroke victory at the Masters,
it seemed as if he and Woods would battle it out for the top spot in the
World Ranking for the next decade.
Then something strange happened. Els got it into his head that Woods was unbeatable. After the 1997 U.S.
Open, Woods finished ahead of Els in the next five U.S. Opens, including
victories in 2000 and 2002.
Woods, however, hasn't won any of the majors since that 2002 triumph at
Bethpage. Els, on the other hand, won the British Open later that summer
and last year at Olympia Fields finished T-5 while Woods finished T-20.
In his last six majors, Els has finish first, T-6, T-5, T-18, T-5 and
then a heartbreaking second this year to Phil Mickelson at the Masters.
Els has matured into what back in '97 it seemed like he would become:
The most consistent major championship player of his generation. While
Woods has more major victories -- eight to three -- Els has had a chance
to win more often -- seven seconds and thirds to three for Woods.
The friendly little shootout Els and Woods had over the weekend at the
Memorial -- with Fred Couples along for the ride -- made you wish we could
skip the Buick this week and go right to the U.S. Open. Els won at 18
under par, four strokes better than Couples and six clear of Woods, who
In one scintillating stretch in which Woods hit a ridiculous cut from 210 yards on No. 11 onto the green and then chipped
in on No. 14 to save par when it seemed double bogey was likely, Els
responded with flawless tempo and a silky smooth putting stroke, rolling
in a 30-footer for birdie on No. 13 after he heard the deafening roars
that greeted Woods' chip-in on No. 14. If Els was worried, he didn't
Els has the prefect game for Shinnecock Hills. He is straight off the
tee, can bring the irons in high and has an up-and-down game that is a
match for the deep swales and slick greens at Shinnecock.
Woods, on the other hand, has to drive the ball a lot better if he is going to have a
chance next week. Shinnecock it not a place where hero shots are going
to be hit from the thick, 4½-inch deep primary rough or wispy,
If Woods struggles with the tee ball at Shinnecock the
same way he did on the back nine at Muirfield Village, making the cut
will be the more immediate challenge, not winning.
If Els does win at Shinnecock it would move him into very select
company. Only five players in history have won the U.S. Open three or
more times -- Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus
have four while Hale Irwin has three. There is no question that going
into this year's U.S. Open, Els' game is coming together while Woods is
still trying to put the pieces of his game back together.
What we saw Sunday at The Memorial from Els was the kind of complete
game that wins major championships. He made a couple of eight-foot
par-saving putts on the back nine that are exactly the kind of saves
needed to win a U.S. Open.
What we saw in Woods was a game that is far from hitting on all cylinders. But what we also saw with the remarkable
cut shot he played to the par-5 11th hole and the flop shot out of the
rough he holed for a par on No. 14 were examples of Woods at his best.
And at his best, Woods makes magic. He possesses physical skills the
likes of which we have never seen in professional golf. And he seethes
with a competitive fury the likes of which we have seen in precious few
athletes in any sport.
Woods does not need to be at his best to win the U.S. Open. The magic
seems to be able to come out of nowhere, and out of everywhere. A tee
shot that finds the trees can be followed with a recovery shot unlike
anything we have ever seen. But at the same time, it seems as if Els is
remembering who he is, it seems as if Els is determined that if Woods
does get it together enough to bolt from the pack at Shinnecock, Els is
prepared to run with him.
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Ernie Els has caught up to Tiger Woods only
because Woods' game has come down a notch.
But of this much I am sure: Els is going to make Woods take the U.S. Open from him. He is not about
to give it away, and he certainly is way beyond conceding it to Woods
before a shot is struck.
That was not the case two years ago. Throw Mickelson and Vijay Singh and maybe a Darren Clarke into the mix and
this should be one heck of a U.S. Open. Wouldn't it be fun if it came
down to Els and Woods on Sunday, just like it was between Els and
Mickelson at Augusta National?
Make no mistake about it, this is still the Tiger Woods Era. But also
make no mistake about this: There are several players out there skilled
enough to beat him. More importantly, those players now believe they
have a chance against Woods. And Els is certainly chief among them.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine