Els wipes away his easy smile as he tries to catch Tiger by the tail

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The Independent Online

Now we know how you take away arguably the most amiable smile in all of sport. You tell the Big Easy someone's said he might just be a quitter.

Now we know how you take away arguably the most amiable smile in all of sport. You tell the Big Easy someone's said he might just be a quitter.

For a moment here yesterday there was the kind of pregnant silence which in polite society follows a shockingly loose comment - or maybe the drawing of a card from the bottom of the pack - after Ernie Els was told that an American official had been saying that Els gave up in the US Open at Shinnecock Hills, the beautiful but, last month, treacherous course on New York's Long Island.

It was then the Big Easy showed that you don't win three major golf titles with the combative instincts of a choirmaster. His eyes narrowed and he said: "I'd like to meet the guy who sad that." The unforgiven critic - he is likely to retain that status for as long as Els operates at the top of the game - was Tom Meeks of the United States Golf Association. As head of competition, he laid down the conditions that left Els on a last-round 80 and in a state of unrelieved anger at Shinnecok Hills last month.

"That shouldn't have been said," snapped Els. "How do you give up? This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life. I've never given up any round of golf in my life. If I did give up, I would have shot a 100 not 80. You know what, they [USGA officials] have no idea. They've lost the plot in the story. To take one of the best golf courses in the entire world and make it a farce like that - I mean they've got egg on their face. That's all I can say."

From Els it was something close to a rant, but scarcely a surprising one even from a man who has never mistaken blustering talk for serious action. The suspicion must be that the big South African, owner of the most sumptuous swing in all the game, is indeed building a formidable head of commitment. He is more than a little tortured by his ambush at Shinnecok Hills, which followed the killing putt of Phil Mickelson in a superb Masters climax at Augusta three months ago.

"There is no doubt," he said, a little more equable now, "I'm in the mood to do something here. It's certainly nice to be asked about my chances of being No 1 by the end of the year. When the question comes round to me it's very positive. It didn't occur four or five years ago when Tiger [Woods] was in a different league. A lot of the players feel they compete with Tiger now - and I'm one of them. He can still play great golf and while you guys say he's off his game, he is still finishing top 10, top five. He's still not that off, but the important point for me now is that I believe I can go out and beat him. That represents a different world."

The question against Els' name has been quite relentless: how much does he really care about winning, having landed two US Opens and an Open Championship? "I care all right," he says. "And I particularly care at this stage of my career. I've played good golf for four or five years now, and I do want more majors. It is something that just builds up inside you."

There is a pattern developing now. While Els talks of his enjoyment of the riches that golf has brought, including his private jet, the sense that he is a man who at 34 has already won his greatest battles is firmly dismissed. Two years ago he perished under the pressure of competing with Woods going around Augusta's Amen Corner. Now he believes he can live with the Tiger.

It may be the most crucial development in his golfing life. "You know right in the eye of the Tiger storm whenever he teed it up I thought he was going to score 67 or something better," he said. "It was the same in majors as normal tour events. That's the way I felt about his potential to shoot low. And at the end of the week that's almost 20-under par. He did that quite a few times in major championships, and to do that on tough golf courses where we played, well, that's difficult to really think about. He just kept grinding away at the height of that streak. It was difficult not only for myself but other players to believe you can go out there and play your game and that it's going to be good enough. I'm sure that's what I said back then when I was trying to compete with Tiger. I felt that way - and so it happened that way."

For Els this may then be the time of final deliverance, when he moves conclusively on his belief that Tiger will never again win tournaments before he has even strolled down from the locker-room. "I'm driving well and I think the course is fair," said Els, maybe thrusting a knife in the direction of the man who performed the rare feat of taking that easy smile from his face.

Maybe the critical call of the American official will go down as a crucial contribution to the career of a great but sometimes underachieving golfer. No doubt the gap between the extent of his desire and the gallery's perception of it has always been misleading, but when someone calls you a quitter, however spuriously, there is always an excellent chance that it will concentrate your mind.

No one ever before seriously questioned the force of the Big Easy's ambition, however languidly it has dressed. Now it has happened there is a sense that the timing might just prove to be significant. It has come at a time when Ernie Els believes that he can beat anyone on the course.