Els' Memorial win serves notice
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 unbeatable.
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 finished third.
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 show it.
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, knee-high fescue.
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
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