Woods hunts a solution to his major uncertainty

It is two years since Tiger's last big day and his pursuers are ready to pounce

Thank goodness for Ernie Els. Just when it looked as if someone outside the world's top 100 was more likely to win a big event than anyone inside the top 10, Els picked off the Memorial. The South African joined Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in winning at Muirfield and Muirfield Village. It is a month less than two years since Els won The Open at the Scottish links. It is exactly two years since Tiger Woods last won a major championship.

Thank goodness for Ernie Els. Just when it looked as if someone outside the world's top 100 was more likely to win a big event than anyone inside the top 10, Els picked off the Memorial. The South African joined Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in winning at Muirfield and Muirfield Village. It is a month less than two years since Els won The Open at the Scottish links. It is exactly two years since Tiger Woods last won a major championship.

Back then everyone thought they knew exactly what was going to happen at the majors. Tiger would win, or at least be there or thereabouts. The last eight majors have been won by different players. The last six winners had not won before, including Phil Mickelson, who finally brought his major drought to an end at the Masters.

Augusta saw a classic final-day duel between the American left-hander and Els, the perfect spring appetizer for the great championships of the summer, the first of which is this week's US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Another heavyweight battle is the expectation rather than the hope. How long will Woods put up with being left out of all the fun? And while Mickelson will quickly want to add to his tally now he has got off the mark, is it not about time Woods (eight), Els (three) and Vijay Singh (two) moved up the list of multiple major winners?

As Els said recently, these are interesting times, with all four as close together as they have ever been. Just as Singh was eyeing up the world No 1 spot, he loses the No 2 slot to Els.

Els and Woods are the only two-time US Open winners in the field. Arguably, since Els won for the second time in 1997 he has become a better player, while since Woods won for the second time in three years in 2002 he has slipped from his magnificent best.

"I'm a different player than I was in '97, although when I won the US Open and the Buick Classic I think I went to No 1 for like a week or two," Els said. "But I feel like a different player now. I'm playing a little bit more consistent than I did back then. There's always stuff you can work on in your game, but it's not as bad as it used to be." After winning the Memorial, from Fred Couples, Woods and Justin Rose, he added: "I feel good about the US Open. This week was a good yardstick for me because of the field and the way the guys played. I'm just going to try and play good when I play. The rest will take care of itself."

It was at Bethpage two years ago that Woods last worked with Butch Harmon. Although the coach stood by his man last year even though his services had been dispensed with, lately Harmon has been more critical of Woods.

The shocking part about Tiger's decline - and we are talking relatively here - is the way he has been unable to get into contention at the majors. Even at Sandwich last year, when he did figure on the final day but was unable to stop Ben Curtis collecting the Claret Jug, he had to battle back from losing a ball with his opening tee shot.

In his three appearances since the Masters Tiger appeared to be driving the ball better but though he hit more fairways than usual at Muirfield Village, he was still not able to conjure up a birdie over the last 11 holes, once an unthinkable occurrence. He may not entirely know where the ball is going, as he once did to the millimetre, but that will not stop him winning more majors.

Although this is the second US Open on Long Island in three years, Shinnecock Hills is staging only its fourth championship and the third in more recent times. Whether, technically, it is a links in the sense that it is built upon linksland is up for debate. But undoubtedly it shares many of the properties of a links, with firm and fast-running fairways, long wispy rough, winds that can blow from any point of the compass - the Atlantic is two miles to the south and Peconic Bay one mile to the north - and holes that turn in different directions to the wind.

Ray Floyd won here in 1986 and Corey Pavin nine years ago, after hitting the most delightful four-wood from 228 yards to four feet at the 18th in beating Greg Norman by two strokes. Tiger was still an amateur and pulled out after five holes of the second round with a wrist injury caused by trying to play from the rough. He had not been back until last week.

Els, the defending champion after winning at Oakmont in '94, missed the cut but Mickelson tied for fourth, four behind Pavin, while Singh was 10th, a shot further back. Only five players have won the Masters and the US Open in the same season: Craig Wood in 1941, Ben Hogan in 1951 and '53, Arnold Palmer in 1960, Nicklaus in '72 and Woods two years ago. Understandably not quite at his best since Augusta, this will be the real test that he is putting the ball in the fairway more than in the past.

Rose has made a habit of leading after the second round of tournaments recently, not least at Augusta, Wentworth and Muirfield Village. All this valuable experience will pay off at some point. There will be more table tennis, presumably, to quieten the nerves for Paul Casey as he attempts to follow up his sixth place in the Masters but what about a hand for Nick Faldo? The six-time major winner battled his way through qualifying at Lake Nona last Tuesday to give himself an 18th attempt at following in the footsteps of Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and Tony Jacklin. That's perseverance for you.

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