Tiger Woods and Ernie Els return to prominence and revive -- maybe -- their once-aborted rivalry
Two of golf's great players got well at Southern Hills, in the process again becoming classic antagonists. As a result, the game got healthier, too.
Tiger Woods turned a good but trending-toward-disappointing year into another great one with his 13th major-championship victory, and Ernie Els provided the best evidence yet that he is ready to emerge from a two-year malaise by charging with a final-round 66 to finish third.
But most important, their individual performances rekindled a rivalry that for more than a decade has been waiting to emerge but never quite materialized. Although their sudden death in the gloaming of the 2003 Presidents Cup will always stand as sports drama of the highest order, and they've had several close battles in regular tournaments (most memorably in a pyrotechnical playoff at the 2000 Mercedes, and most recently in a shootout at Dubai in 2006 -- both won by Tiger), Els and Woods have never really locked up in crunch-time at a major.
Although Els has finished second to Woods in two majors, they occurred during Woods' epic runaways at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews in 2000. In the two majors Els has won since Woods turned pro, the 1997 U.S. Open and 2002 British Open, Woods didn't figure. It was much the same story in 2004, when Els was nipped at the finish in three majors, while Woods was having his worst Grand Slam year ever. And when Woods emerged resurgent in 2005, Els ruptured the ACL in his left knee in a water-tubing accident. In point of fact, Southern Hills was the closest the two have come to bumping elbows down the stretch of a big one, although Els was two groups ahead. Starting the day six strokes behind, Els made six birdies -- his last when he stiffed a 5-iron to three feet on the 223-yard 14th. When Woods later three-putted the same hole, Els was briefly within one.
But on the 507-yard par-4 16th, Els made a quick swing and pulled his driver into deep rough ("Just a bad swing ... flipped at it a little," he said). Bogey ensued, and when Woods responded with his birdie on the 15th, Els was three down -- and out.
Afterward, Els was disappointed but also heartened. Southern Hills tied his best performance in a major (he was also third at last year's British Open) since the 2004 PGA, where a final-hole three-putt left him one stroke out of playoff. It also came on the heels of a T-4 at Carnoustie, where the South African finished two strokes out of a playoff despite a triple-bogey 8 on the sixth hole in the third round. He fought back to post 68 and then 69 Sunday. And last Sunday's performance gave credibility to Els' almost forgotten but bold announcement after winning the South African Airways Open at the end of 2006 of a three-year plan to regain the world No. 1 spot he last held for eight weeks in 1998.
"There's a lot of good in my game," he said after his final round at Southern Hills. "I'm not quite where I think I can be. But if I can get to the next level where I want to be, maybe I can at least give him a real go, a run for his money. Because someone needs to step up."
But in the months leading up to the PGA, it didn't appear as if it would be Els. Winless on the PGA Tour since his 15th career victory at the 2004 WGC-American Express Championship in Ireland, Els was close earlier this year at Los Angeles and Hilton Head, but otherwise has been mostly middle of the pack.
While his ball-striking remains less than stellar, his transition to new clubs and ball continues, and he completes the recovery from his injury. Els' biggest struggle has been on the greens, particularly on putts inside 10 feet. And as Phil Mickelson has taken over as Woods' main rival in the public mind, Els has sometimes displayed an uncharacteristic testiness, growing especially impatient with questions about Woods' domination. It's reasonable to surmise that some of the sourness stemmed from the emotional wound dealt by the cruel losses of 2004, particularly to Mickelson at the Masters and Todd Hamilton at the British Open. But rather than wallow, Els showed at Southern Hills that he has emerged with a more positive attitude and renewed dedication.