Woods keeps contenders at Bay


Well, I guess we can let Ernie Els off the hook now.

Els, the latest winner of the golf-world Tiger Antidote Achievement Award, was propped up to enliven the Bay Hill Invitational last weekend. He stood next to Woods, watched Woods fight the impulse to lean face-first into the bushes, and finished 19 strokes behind.

Later, he had a frosty mug of what-ails-ya with David Duval, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson, the first, second and third winners of the TAAA.

Now this is not to castigate Els, who surely did his best and in any event is a superb golfer.

But in fairness, he did lose nine strokes Sunday to the Vomiting Cavalier, which is not the kind of showing expected of someone listed as the Man To Fight The Power.

So whose fault is this ... I mean, other than The Mighty E's (Eldrick and Elin Nordegren, the man's consort)?

Simple: Ours.

We can't help ourselves. We desperately want Woods to have a Palmer to his Nicklaus, or a Frazier to his Ali, or a Bird to his Johnson. We want Sunday drama, and no, one day of Rich Beem isn't enough.

But we're now 0-for-3, and there is little hope that a fourth will become immediately evident.

And congratulations to the field for ducking our offers.

Duval hasn't been healthy very often since first being offered up to the ravenous steel jaws, and when he has, he hasn't played particularly well.

Garcia has come, and is now receding from view, although that doesn't prevent him from rising again at some point.

Then there was Mickelson, who actually had the temerity to poke the cage before the response, which abbreviated his arm and left a stump where one normally finds the more traditional fingertips.

And now there's Els. The poor sap.

One wonders what he could have done to deserve this. Oh, he's a fine player and all, and by all accounts a good and gracious fellow. He was quoted Sunday as saying, "He's still the man. He loves playing with me, I can promise you that."

No witty remarks about Woods' equipment. No hilarious jabs about his touchy boiler. He handled it with the required dignity and good nature. A role model indeed for anyone who drops 19 strokes to the office bully.

And that's all we need to see. He's excused now. And maybe we can be, too.

Oh, it might be mildly amusing to toss off a replacement for Els (Brad Faxon? Frank Lickliter? Annika Sorenstam?), but finding someone who actually deserves that kind of abuse is something else.

I mean, we're not talking about simply losing a match. We're talking about being offered up for a one-shot swallowing. Now you see him, now you hear a couple of burps, and now you don't.

Oh, I suppose we could actually wait and see if someone volunteers for the job, but given the history of those we have already tried, anyone who wanted this job is too unstable to actually receive it.

Frankly, this is the sort of thing we all know should develop organically, but we have somehow decided that Woods can only be fully defined by some equally appointed foil, and we need to know whether he is the best golfer who ever lived.

Right now, he still ranks second, but only because he hasn't played often enough to amass Nicklaus' records. But we want the answer now, because nobody knows what the future may hold (Brad Faxon? Frank Lickliter? Annika Sorenstam?).

So we will seek out a man to receive the fifth TAAA, and we will wait until our man is matched against The Mighty Eldrick, and we will avert our eyes when the sky is filled with clubs and visors and gloves and ball markers, and go looking for a sixth.

Or maybe Woods, having seen that hurling breakfast into every third bunker isn't enough to even the field, will take to hopping the course. He's not entirely humorless, you know.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com