James Lawton: Enlightened Els sees path out of Tiger's shadow

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The Independent Online

The Big Easy, entirely true to immaculately generous form, is refusing to dance on the grave of a previously immortal, unparalleled golfer named Tiger Woods. He does not have the instinct or the apparatus for such work, and he says that, anyway, the obituary notices may still prove premature.

However, Ernie Els, the owner of the game's most beautiful swing, and three major titles, does go into the 68th Masters here today with a new and maybe vital conviction.

It is that never again will he allow his game - and that swing which might have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci - to be destroyed by the sight of the Tiger's name on a leaderboard.

That happened here two years ago and when Els thinks of it his open, amiable face tightens in grief. It is a bad memory, maybe the worst of his entire golfing life. But, no, he says it cannot happen again and here maybe is the most telling commentary of all in a tide of doubt that has lapped over Woods since he won his last major nearly two years ago.

It is the suggestion that whatever else Woods achieves in the rest of his career the capacity to inflict disabling terror on a golf course may well be over.

Certainly Els believes that he has stepped beyond such risk. His career crisis came at the exit door of Amen Corner, as he contended for the 2002 green jacket. Believing utterly in the inexorable infallibility of the leader Woods, he put huge, insupportable pressure on himself at the 13th tee. He reached too far and he scored an eight. At the 15th Woods' other serious challenger, Vijay Singh, ballooned to a nine. Both these major title winners simply withered in the heat of the Tiger.

"It's true," says Els, "that the Tiger has cooled down a little bit and maybe this has helped other guys to become better players. I definitely don't want to think about Tiger Woods this week. I want to definitely just play my own game, and even if it so happens that we have the same situation that we had two years ago, the fact is I learned a lot from that afternoon.

"It wasn't a pleasant time, you can imagine. I learned from it, and the truth was I had to. I had to realise that the moment you stop being in charge of your own game you are finished, and maybe that's what Tiger did to you."

This week the embattled Woods agreed that speculation on his future might be categorised as a touch of "mass hysteria" - and he also talked wryly of a bombardment of well-meaning advice from an army of "couch coaches". Els, reading of a phenomenon at the crossroads, was inevitably more measured. The 34-year-old South African said, "I have to go back to 1999 and the four-year stretch that followed ... you could have brought anybody out against him with the same results and I think it's well documented that I said quite a few good things about him.

"He played on such a level that I think Jack Nicklaus would have had a very tough time handling him. He was probably the only guy who could have played with Tiger during that stretch. But now it is a little bit different, and quite a number of guys are playing better golf. I'm talking about Vijay and Davis [Love] and Mike Weir and Phil [Mickelson], David Toms, Harrington [Padraig] and myself.

"This group of players has definitely raised its game so this time I think we can, in a way that we haven't before, believe that anybody can win ... top-20, top-30 ... it was proven last year when Mike Weir did it as a first-time major winner."

For Els the scaling down of the Woods aura, he admits, sharpens his own obligation to build on his two US Open and one Open successes. He says, "I love to travel the world and play my golf - let's be honest, there's a lot of money to be earned out there - but in the end, yes, you want to believe that you have done all you can to develop whatever talent you've been given. And there is no better way of measuring that than by major titles.

"You win your first title, and then you are tempted to ask yourself if it was a fluke. Well, I don't ask myself that question. I was 24 when I won my first major, so you want to say, okay, this is not a fluke. I am that good. So here we go, let me show you. Sometimes it takes you a while. I think that's probably the natural thing. You go from a good tour player to a major champion, and then if you win another one, you take another step - definitely."

Such was the ordered world of Els, superb stroke-maker and a young man who could always see that there was a life beyond the fairway, invaded by the Tiger here seven years ago. "Yes, we had to say that Tiger Woods re-drew the boundaries when he won so brilliantly, so young," admits Els. "But when all is said and done, you can only answer for your own performance. You have to make the scores and I do have some advantages here.

"The good thing about this course to me, I know the lines quite well. So it's not like I've got to read it again and again and again. I'm pretty sure where to hit the putts, just to get the speed. And the putter feels good this week."

So, on the last nine holes of practice here on Tuesday, did his driver. "Suddenly I felt good, quite relaxed, I felt my driver was working very well. It's a nice feeling because the Masters is something I want to win very much. I want this one, and I want the PGA title, I want the full set and I do know that I can do it."

At 28, Woods says that he was startled by the fact that he is playing his 10th Masters. He briskly turned away a question about whether he had plans to match the 50 appearances from which a weary Arnold Palmer will finally walk away sometime tomorrow afternoon. "I hope I'm not fertiliser by then," said Woods. Whatever his ultimate fate, there is no doubt about the pivotal nature of this year of 2004. For the moment it stands out as the time when it was maybe no longer enough for him to simply stand on the first tee - and when a player as good as the Big Easy said that, at least for him, the Reign of Terror was indeed a thing of the past.