History came back to haunt Ernie Els here yesterday in the most chilling manner imaginable. Once again it was the terrifying spectre of Tiger Woods creeping up behind to steal a trophy the South African must have believed was his for the polishing.
It was at the Johnnie Walker Championship in Thailand in the last week of January 1998, when Els went out with an eight-shot lead, but saw it overhauled by the young man who was already rewriting the game's history. At this Dubai Desert Classic – spookily, almost exactly a decade later – Els' advantage was "only" four shots. But if anything the defeat may hurt even more.
Inevitably, it came down to the pair's contrasting displays on the 18th. Woods held a 30-footer for birdie; Els plonked a ball in the water, some 30 yards short, and bogeyed. It meant Woods had come back in 31 for a 65, while Els had trundled home in 38 for a 71. Whether Els will now ever be able to summon the spirit to return to his past glories is highly debatable.
Sadly, the 38-year-old did not even claim runner-up honours, his final-hole disaster allowing Germany's Martin Kaymer, the bright young thing of the European Tour, to strengthen further his Ryder Cup credentials, courtesy of a birdie-birdie-eagle finish. That was merely a cameo performance, however, on a final day that was as entertaining as it was enthralling.
As ever, Woods was the central character. He managed to put aside his poor Saturday, although later he gave the reason for the errant driving display which blighted his third-round 73. "I didn't tell you guys this, but I broke my driver in the pro-am on Wednesday and had to use my back-up," he said. In light of that, his master-class in catch-up golf was that much more remarkable.
The definitive moment was the 10th tee, moments after he had three-putted the ninth to fall four shots back again and so ruin much of the good work of his three birdies in the first four holes. "I said to Stevie [Williams, his caddie] that I needed to shoot 30 to make a play-off," he said. "I just needed to make a whole load of putts."
In fact, he only took 10 on the entire back nine, although what occurred on the 12th was partly responsible for that remarkable feat. It was one of those classic Tiger moments when time seems to stand still and his chip from the thick rough at the side of the green headed inexorably towards the cup.
"People don't realise how hard that chip was," said Woods, obviously oblivious to everyone else's disbelief.
Three more birdies followed in the next five holes (including on the 17th where he all but drove the 359-yarder), but he stood on the last tee knowing only a birdie would suffice. Three shots later he was at the back of the par-five green and facing a decidedly tricky downhill, left-to-right putt. Yes, he holed it and his celebrations were as wholehearted as if he had just won another Open. Nevertheless, he had to wait 45 minutes until Els' calamity to collect the £210,00 cheque for his 81st career victory.
The rest of the 32-year-old's vital statistics also make jaw-dropping reading. This was his seventh victory in his last eight starts stretching back to August and extends his lead at the head of the world rankings to a level whereby it is little wonder that experts are already talking about him for the "Grand Slam" of majors. There is now a greater gap between him and the world No 2, Phil Mickelson, than there is between Mickelson and the player ranked 1,000th.
When told about this differential, Woods joked: "Hey, I thought Ian Poulter was No 2 in the world." Of course, Poulter's bold claim ("when I reach my potential it will just be me and Tiger") was the other theme of this week. Sorry, Ian. It is, and will always be, just Tiger.
"There's a different sort of roar out there when he is making birdies," commented Graeme McDowell, the Ulsterman who came fifth on 10-under. "He forced everybody's hand. He always does."
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