Sergio's mission starts this week at Mercedes

Originally Published: January 9, 2003
Associated Press

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Sergio Garcia's goals remain the same, no matter how lofty they seem. He wants to win major championships and become the first player with money titles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Don't forget Ernie
Ernie ElsErnie Els has a new equipment deal with Titleist, new clothing and new sponsorship. What makes him excited about the season is an old outlook on his golf and his potential.

No more trying to tailor his game to catch Tiger Woods.

The Big Easy figures he's got enough game as it is.

''I got talent myself,'' Els said Wednesday. ''Tiger plays -- when he's on -- on a different level. But I feel comfortable with myself again and my game. If I'm playing to my ability, I can compete. That's going to be the test this year.''

It starts today with the winners-only Mercedes Championships at Kapalua, one of his favorite spots. Els qualified by winning twice last year on the PGA Tour, both of them important in their own right.

First, he played mistake-free on the back nine at Doral after Woods had narrowed an eight-stroke deficit to one in the final round. Then, Els won his third major championship at Muirfield by overcoming a late stumble to win the first British Open settled in sudden death.

Just like that, he re-emerged as a chief rival to Woods.

Phil Mickelson might be No. 2 in the world ranking, but Els was second-best to Woods last year by winning four times in official events, and also capturing the prestigious World Match Play Championship in England.

He finished his year with a $2 million payoff in Sun City, winning by eight strokes.

Then again, being second-best to Woods is what got him into this mess.

Els became the first player to finish second in three consecutive majors in 2000, and the last two were to Woods by a combined 23 strokes.

''Tiger went on a streak there which I don't know if we'll ever see again,'' Els said. ''Everything he did was unbelievable. Unfortunately for me, I was just caught up in that whirlwind of his.''

That year began at Kapalua, where Woods and Els staged a duel that still ranks among the best ever for non-majors.

There were seven lead changes in the final round, both players made eagle on the last hole to force a playoff, both made birdie on the first extra holes, and Woods finally ended it with a 40-foot birdie putt.

It should have been enough to remind Els that he could hand with Woods, except that Woods kept getting better and Els kept finishing behind him -- by five strokes at the Memorial, 15 strokes in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, eight strokes at the British Open.

''I think the Pebble Beach thing was the one that got me a little bit,'' he said. ''Winning a major by 15 shots, that tells you something. He just totally blew us out of the water. I think after that, I was trying different things. Hopefully, I won't do that again.''

Els tried so hard to play a game with which he's not familiar, such as attacking pins with perilous consequences, that he was in a funk the first six months of 2001 and finished the year without a PGA Tour victory for the first time since 1994.

''I think I eventually, mentally got stable again, my own little battle,'' he said. ''Instead of trying to improve things, doing things out of the ordinary, trying to chase down Tiger, I just thought, 'Play my game, see where it goes.'''

Els will find out this year, although he'll have to wait a few months to see how his results stack up to Woods.

That means beating Tiger Woods, which might be the loftiest goal of all.

''I think he's a great player. He's probably going to be one of the best players ever,'' Garcia said. ''Hopefully, I'll try to make that not possible.''

Garcia won't have to worry about Woods for a while.

When the PGA Tour season starts Thursday at the winners-only Mercedes Championships, Woods will be home in Florida rehabilitating his left knee from surgery that will keep him out for at least the first five tournaments.

That doesn't matter to Garcia, the defending champion at Kapalua. There are plenty of other tough players in the field, even if the Spaniard doesn't recognize many of them.

Woods is out. Phil Mickelson, No. 2 in the world, is taking time off. David Duval, David Toms and Davis Love III didn't qualify because they didn't win last season.

In their place are 18 first-time winners, which constitutes half of the Mercedes field. The turnover was so great that only eight of this year's entrants were at Kapalua in 2002.

Whoever they are, they will be chasing a $1 million prize, the first of 12 tournaments that pays at least $1 million to the winner under the new four-year television contract.

And at some point this year, they probably will be chasing Woods.

''I just hope he takes his time getting better,'' Charles Howell III said.

Garcia has been nipping at Woods' heels ever since he stole the show -- and almost the trophy -- from Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship.

Their battles have been rare, but entertaining. The last one that mattered came in the U.S. Open at Bethpage, where Woods knocked Garcia out early and cruised to a three-stroke victory over Mickelson.

Still, Garcia doesn't pay homage to Woods like some players. He doesn't think it's a lock that Woods will win a record fifth straight money title. Garcia sees no reason why he can't replace Woods as No. 1 in the world.

''I know what I've got to do,'' said Garcia, who turns 23 on Thursday. ''I know what my goals are, what I want to achieve.''

He better get moving.

The 27-year-old Woods has won eight majors, Garcia none.

Woods has won the PGA Tour money title the last four years and would have won the Order of Merit twice if he had been a European tour member.

Garcia never has finished higher than sixth on the PGA Tour, and he was third on the European tour Order of Merit in 1999, when he was a 19-year-old rookie with no fear and plenty of game.

He still has no fear -- especially when it comes to Woods.

''I don't think I'm going to give him more credit than he deserves,'' Garcia said. ''He's a wonderful player, but that's it for me.''

Garcia looked like he was ready to assume the role as Woods' chief rival last year, especially when he closed with a 9-under 64 in the final round and made two birdies on the 18th hole at Kapalua -- one to get into a playoff, the other to defeat Toms.

That was his only PGA Tour victory of the year, and he had only two other decent chances at winning -- a tie for fourth at The Players Championship, and fourth in the U.S. Open. Even so, he was the only player to finish in the top 10 at every major.

What makes Garcia think this year will be any different? How can someone expect to conquer Woods while dividing his time between two tours?

''You just do better in the right places, win as many as you can,'' Garcia said. ''Tiger is playing 18 tournaments a year and he's winning. Why not?''

It all begins to unfold on the Plantation Course that winds along cliffs above the rugged coast of western Maui, an idyllic start to the season.

Garcia is the youngest of the next crop of stars, even though this is his fifth year on tour. He was among five players under 25 who won on the PGA Tour last year, a list that includes Howell, Jonathan Byrd and Matt Kuchar.

Most of the attention on the young Americans centers on Howell, the former NCAA champion at Oklahoma State who broke through at the Michelob Championship and was the runner-up to Vijay Singh at the season-ending Tour Championship.

Howell also has said he wants to be No. 1, although his immediate goals are more modest than Garcia's.

''Top five on the money list,'' he said. ''That's a fair goal, and a good goal. And I want to win two tournaments. It all kind of comes when you least expect it.''

This would be an ideal place for him to start.

Howell made his first trip to Kapalua in 2001 to get married, although he brought his golf clubs with him. In fact, he played three times in four days.

''I took the day off when I got married,'' he said.

Back to work, everyone.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press