Golf: Tiger must tame rivals - or Els

Andy Farrell tees up the first major head-to-head of the two new giants of golf
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The Independent Online
THERE can be no dispute that the two best players in the world at the moment are Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. What is exercising everyone's minds, in golf's very own fantasy game, is which of the two will turn out to be the better player in the long run, which one will end up with the most majors?

The thought that Woods and Els could be duelling it out on the back nine at Augusta National in seven days time with a Masters green jacket at stake is enough to send the senses giddy. Given the game is as predictable as it is simple, it must remain a hope rather than an expectation.

But what if...

Golf has always thrived on its great rivalries and it is at major time that the competition is at its extreme. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman are just two of the great sagas of modern times. Now that the world No 1 and the world No 2 - Els could overtake Woods for top spot depending on what transpires this week - have a history in regular events, it is time for them to get it on in a major.

Woods came from eight behind the South African with a last-round 65 to tie Els at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand. He then went on to win at the second extra hole. Els got his revenge at the Bay Hill Invitational last month, when a 65 in the third round, played early on a Sunday morning, helped him to victory and a 12-stroke swing on Woods over the 36 holes on the final day.

The difference between the two encounters was that at Bay Hill the pair were playing together. "At breakfast the players were all saying how we wished we didn't have to play so we could go out there and watch," said Bob Estes, who ended up sharing second. "I wouldn't say we are rivals," said Els, "but there is a rivalry on the course. It is only going to get bigger now."

"You love that rivalry stuff, don't you," is Woods's reply to questions on the subject. He just will not bite. "I wouldn't say there is a rivalry between one and two now because there are too many good modern players and too many guys shooting too low nowadays."

But only two names crop up in the fantasy game. Woods, aged 22 with one major title, has won once this year with four top-threes in six events. Els, aged 28 and two US Open crowns, has won twice this year with six top-threes in nine events.

To tee the game off, the greatest players from each contender's own country handed down their opinions. "I think Ernie in the long run will be better," said Gary Player. "Ernie's short game is better than Tiger's and that's what wins golf tournaments, not hitting the ball prodigious distances."

Nicklaus, who is on record as saying Woods will win more green jackets than his and Arnold Palmer's combined tally of 10 was quick to respond. "Tiger is probably the most complete golfer I've ever seen," the Bear said.

"He has a future in the game that is probably unparalleled. Tiger plays more aggressively than Ernie and that can lead to his downfall, but he is not stupid. He is a very smart golfer, a more explosive individual. He is as quick through the ball as anyone I've seen."

Two more modern players both back Els. "With all respect to all the others," said Seve Ballesteros, "if I had to pick one player, it is Ernie Els.

"Winning the Masters is not easy and what Tiger Woods did last year was fantastic. I am sure he will win another Masters, but I don't think it has been recognised enough how good Ernie is. He is a phenomenal golfer. He has a great swing, is very powerful, is a great iron player and his short game is good. When he is on his game, he is tough to beat."

After his two victories at Augusta in 1980 and '83, Ballesteros was expected, in a similar way to Woods, to win many more green jackets. It did not happen. And, of course, Greg Norman has never managed it, even when leading by six over Faldo going into the last round in '96.

"All round, I'd just give Ernie the nudge," Norman said. "It is going to be interesting to see the two battle it out. I think it will be a rivalry you'll enjoy watching. Tiger has a lot more atmosphere and expectation around him, but he can struggle in the wind. Ernie has got great control of the flight of his ball. Plus he has got six years on Tiger, a few more years of experience under this belt.

"Ernie has that type of swing that will just keep going for ever. Tiger has a little suspect back even now at 22. I can tell you the wear and tear he does hitting balls every day is not going to make it any better and that will niggle away at him."

We know after his 12-stroke win last year that Woods's game is perfectly suited to Augusta. But Els's should be, too, and not even the South African can explain why his best finish in four attempts was eighth on his debut in '94. "I've never really gone in with a lot of confidence," said Els, who is leading the European money list after his early-season globetrotting.

"I've played well in a few tournaments but now I need to play really well at Augusta. That is my first and immediate goal of 1998. Right now I think I am on the crest of some kind of wave and I'm going to try to ride it out and see how far I can go."

Unless Woods emulates Nicklaus and Faldo and becomes only the third man successfully to defend his crown at Augusta, then tradition dictates that he will have to hand over the green jacket to someone else. If that someone is Ernie Els then it will have been some afternoon, and even Tiger Woods might start talking of a rivalry.