Ernie Els was proclaimed as the "next god of golf" when he won the US Open at the age of 24 three years ago, and if he did not start winning every major under the sun, then who can? Woods, who finished tied for 19th at Congressional and despite all the hoopla at Augusta, won't either, but the pair can look forward to some mighty battles over the next decade and more.
Colin Montgomerie has already duelled with the South African and, apart from sneaking the Million Dollar Challenge at Sun City from under his nose last December, has usually come off second best. He lost to Els in a play-off at Oakmont in 1994 and in the final of the World Match Play the same year. On Sunday, Els, with a total of 276, four under par, beat the Scot by a single stroke.
In tears immediately afterwards, Montgomerie composed himself to pay tribute to his nemesis. "If I was ever going to lose this tournament again, I'll lose it to him," Montgomerie said. "I would like to congratulate Ernie. I have played a lot of golf with him over the last five years and I have only admiration for him. He's a wonderful chap, so laid back it's frightening."
Montgomerie matched Els's final round of 69 and shared the lead for much of the back nine. The pair were playing together, just in front of Tom Lehman and Jeff Maggert, who hung around longer than some gave him credit for beforehand. It was a terrific four-way scrap, with Lehman, now third- second-third in the last three US Opens, falling one back by bogeying the 16th, and then finding the water with his approach to 17. "I would give anything in the world for a mulligan," said the Open champion. "It would have been a lot of fun going over the Royal Troon as a double champion."
The 17th, a brute of a par four at 480 yards played to a green protruding into the water, also saw Montgomerie's downfall. While Els played the hole in level par for the week, the Scot bogeyed it on all four occasions, and twice on Sunday. With Els safely on the green, Montgomerie pushed his approach just into the thick rough. His chip was a good one, but he had to wait for a noisy crowd to settle before facing his six-foot putt, which went agonisingly close to falling in. "I have proved once again to myself, if I needed any proof, that I love this US Open," he said.
Montgomerie has now finished third and second twice in the US Open and lost a play-off in the USPGA. "It's getting me down this major business," he said bluntly. "The more I go through every major not winning one, the next one I'm in contention, there is certainly more pressure involved.
"But if I knock at the door often enough, as I seem to be doing, especially in this tournament, the door will open one day. I just have to be patient. I believe this is the toughest one of them all, mentally, to win, and Ernie seems to have what it takes to win. His nature helps him. There is a word called talent, and he has an abundance of it."
Said Els: "I hope for his sake, Colin wins a major. It was good playing with him. I knew he was going to play well, he is such a great player under pressure, and that if I could beat him, I would have a great chance to win. I've had a few close misses. When he beat me in the Million Dollar in front of my home crowd, that hurt.
"I didn't want to lose today. Maybe '94 came a bit quick, I wasn't a major contender then. I said people would have to be patient, but maybe I wasn't patient with myself. This is a good feeling. I go into a different class now. I'm really going to enjoy this one."
Els's victory means there are consecutive winners of majors under 30 for the first time in a decade and he is the only current player under that age to hold two majors. Woods, who entered the world rankings only 42 weeks ago, will inevitably follow, but although he produced more birdies than anyone, US Opens are not won with aggressive play.
His putting was not in the same class as Augusta, but as there, he "beat" Nick Faldo when they played together in the final round, 72 to 76. The group was warned for slow play and Faldo put the blame on the number of media following the group. Sorry for being interested. In truth, as soon as the leaders went off, Woods and Faldo paled into insignificance.
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