Winner's circle closed to Duval, Els and Love

They are among the best players in the world, considered the chief challengers to Tiger Woods. They already have earned more than $1 million this year, and the season is not even four months old.

Lately, however, David Duval, Davis Love III and Ernie Els share one other distinction that has become a troubling trend.

They can't seem to win.

All of them have been there on the back nine on Sunday, either in the lead or close enough that it seems like only a matter of time before they're holding an oversized check and hoisting a trophy for the cameras.

The latest opportunity belonged to Els, a two-time US Open champion whose credentials carried him only so far in the MCI Classic.

With a birdie sandwiched between two great bunker saves, he was at 14 under and three strokes clear, cruising toward what looked like a sure victory. Suddenly, shockingly, the Big Easy became the Big Pushover.

"I don't know what happened," Els said after playing the final 11 holes in 5 over to finish five strokes behind Stewart Cink. "I just lost it. What can you do?"

That's a consolation speech Love should know by heart. Love was only three strokes behind Els to start the final round and quickly bowed out, just as he did in the Masters a week early, just as he did in the Bay Hill Invitational a month ago.

Duval wasn't at Harbour Town. He folded his tent a week earlier at Augusta National, one stroke out of the lead with seven holes to play when he hit a bad shot at a bad time. He wound up with a bogey on the par-5 13th and finished four strokes behind Vijay Singh.

Just more than a year ago, Duval was No 1 in the world, a winner in 11 of his last 34 tournaments. He is 0-for-23 since, dating to his victory in Atlanta the week before last year's Masters.

Els is 0-for-26 going back to his victory a year ago in Los Angeles, where he held off Woods, Duval and Love down the stretch at Riviera.

"When you haven't won like me, for almost a year now on this tour, it feels like you've got to work a little harder to get back there," Els said. "I've felt like that for quite some time."

It must feel even longer for Love.

He followed his first major, the PGA Championship at Winged Foot in 1997, with a victory the next year in the MCI Classic. Since then, he has had six runner-up finishes, eight chances on Sunday afternoons, a lot of money and no hardware.

He is 0-for-52 since his last victory.

"Time flies out here," Love said. "I think it would seem like a long time if I hadn't played well at all in between, but I've been close and had a lot of exciting things happen in between. So it hasn't been grinding on me or anything."

Duval is the most puzzling of the three. He remains the only player to hold the No 1 ranking without ever having won a major. Clearly, he has enough talent to win with less than his best. Only now, he can't seem to win under any circumstances.

The same player who won four times before the '99 Masters let three chances get away on the West Coast this year. Putting cost him in Hawaii and in the Bob Hope Classic, and his 5-iron into Rae's Creek cost him a chance to wear a green jacket.

His focus on the Masters came at the expense of other victories.

"I probably wasn't as focused on those as much as I should have been," Duval said during the Masters. "Not to say I've neglected other events, but I've had an eye to the future. That's a balance I'll have to work on."

Duval, Love and Els are not the only ones in a drought.

Justin Leonard has two big wins on his resume, the 1997 British Open and The Players Championship a year later. The latter was his last victory, a dubious winless streak at 55 and counting.

Nick Price and Lee Janzen, with five majors between him, also have to look back to 1998 to find their last first-place check.

No one said winning was easy, especially on the PGA Tour. In no other sport is a 25 percent success rate considered a banner year.

Maybe that's the problem.

Perhaps Woods has made winning look so routine - 10 of his last 18 tour events - that expectation levels are rising around him.

"It just seems like when he plays, he wins," Els said. "It kind of makes people think it's easy to win out here on tour. I guess when you're on such a high, with so much talent like Tiger has, that winning becomes a habit."

Not winning has become a habit that Duval, Els and Love need to break.

The sooner the better.