The parking lot of the Bay Hill Club and Lodge is a funny place
to throw down the gauntlet, especially for someone with the
sense of theater Ernie Els has. But last Saturday afternoon at
the Bay Hill Invitational, Els leaned against a courtesy car and
in his understated way laid into Tiger Woods, his primary rival
for supremacy among the PGA Tour's twentysomething stars. "I
wouldn't say Tiger won that tournament," Els said of their
celebrated tussle in January at the Johnnie Walker Classic in
Thailand, where Woods made up eight shots during the final round
and trumped Els in a playoff. "He shot a 65 on Sunday, yeah, but
I played atrocious on the weekend. He didn't win it as much as I
lost it." Of the spastic fist-pumping that followed, Els said
with a broad grin, "That's his trademark. It's good for TV."
For Els, who is known for graciousness in defeat and the
generous praise he sprinkles on his colleagues, these were
fighting words, and on Sunday he backed them up. Playing in the
last group with Woods on a grueling 36-hole final day, Els
taught Woods a lesson he's not likely to forget, shooting a
65-73 to Tiger's toothless 73-77. That Els won the tournament by
four strokes (over Bob Estes and Jeff Maggert) and collected
$360,000 was almost incidental. This was the Tiger and Ernie
show, and Els, at least, didn't disappoint. "People were saying
that today is what the future of golf is going to look like, and
I hope they're right," Els woofed on Sunday evening.
Evening the score with Woods was deeply satisfying for Els.
Nicknamed Big Easy as much for his mellow disposition as for his
effortless swing, Els is nonetheless one of the most cutthroat
competitors in golf. He has won the U.S. Open twice and three
straight World Match Play Championships, from 1994 to '96,
nearly making it four in a row last year before being nipped in
the 36-hole final by Vijay Singh. At Els's rookie Presidents Cup
in 1996, he put together a team-leading 3-1-1 record, including
a 3-and-2 dismantling of Phil Mickelson during the Sunday
singles. The Johnnie Walker, played on Phuket, an island in
southern Thailand, was the first time he had gone nose-to-nose
with Woods, and says Els dryly, "I didn't exactly rise to the
occasion." Speaking more generally of Woods, he says, "You see
his name on the scoreboard, and it inspires you. We are
athletes, and anytime you see another athlete play up to his
talent and his potential, it motivates you."
Inspiration was not in short supply when Els (eight under) and
second-round coleaders Woods and Davis Love III (10 under) teed
off on the back nine at 7:15 on Sunday morning, the scrambled
format due to heavy rains and lightning on Thursday and Friday.
Els's putter apparently overslept, and he missed a number of
good birdie opportunities before finally making an 18-footer on
the 18th to move to nine under, one back of Woods and two in
front of Love. Over the next 10 holes Els lapped his playing
partners as well as the rest of the field, scorching Bay Hill
for six birdies to go to 15 under, eight strokes ahead of Woods
and nine up on Love. Els then sleepwalked through the rest of
the afternoon, his lead never dipping below four shots.
Having the champions of three of last year's majors grouped for
a 36-hole stare-down had set all of Bay Hill abuzz--"At
breakfast with some of the other players," said Estes, "we were
all saying how we wished we didn't have to play so we could go
out there and watch"--but the showdown was a major letdown as
Love and Woods took turns seeing who could hit it more crooked.
On Sunday, Love had five bogeys and as many birdies (two) as
double bogeys, free-falling to 17th with a 75-76 finish. He came
unhinged after only four holes in a weird confrontation that
began when he drowned his approach shot in a lake fronting the
13th hole, a 364-yard par-4. After Love took a drop and hit
toward the green, a ponytailed yahoo in the gallery shouted,
"C'mon, Davis, this isn't the Ryder Cup," a biting reference to
Love's 0-4 flameout last September in Spain. This drew the ire
of Love and his caddie-brother, Mark, and as they motioned to
the marshals for backup, Love's tormentor continued: "Hey, you
choked." At this point Love, still standing in the middle of the
fairway, beckoned with his finger and said, "Come over here and
tell me that." Before the rumble could go down, the heckler was
escorted away by sheriff's deputies. Love then two-putted for
double bogey, followed with a bogey at the easy par-3 14th and
was never heard from again.
The massive gallery spent most of the day screaming at Woods,
too, but these were vain attempts to pump up the Orlando
resident. "In the morning I just didn't hit it close enough to
give myself enough birdie opportunities," Woods said. "In the
afternoon I hit it real bad." That's putting it politely.
Woods's 77 was the second-worst round of his pro career and
featured a humiliating finish during which he dunked balls in
water hazards on two of the last three holes.
His fade to 13th was the most egregious example yet of his newly
acquired habit of coming up short. Woods has taken to
downplaying his winless streak on Tour, which dates back to--all
together now--last July's Western Open, and his caddie, Mike
(Fluff) Cowan, offered a gruff version of the party line after
Saturday's round. "Do you know how f------ hard it is to win on
Tour?" Fluff growled. "Good players, great players, go years
between wins. Down the stretch he hasn't been doing anything
different. Nothing. It's just the way it falls, and it hasn't
fallen his way." This wasn't total fluffery: Heading into Bay
Hill, Woods led the Tour in final-round scoring average, with
67.75. Clearly, though, something is askew. Woods took the
opening-round lead for the first time all year with a flawless
64, then his swing sprung a leak during the second round as he
hit just eight greens. A sparkling short game allowed him to
salvage a 70, but he ran out of miracles on Sunday.
"It's the usual stuff," he said with a sigh when it was all
over, adding that he was planning to put in some long days of
work with his Svengali, Butch Harmon. "It's positioning and
wrists and all that kind of stuff. It's a little too technical.
Am I concerned after the way I played today? Definitely. I put a
lot of pressure on myself to win."
Woods scoffed at the suggestion that he was intimidated by Els's
intensity, but he did allow that "he played great. He did what
he had to do."
To the disappointment of some, Woods and Els harbor no animosity
toward each other and are, in fact, "good friends," in Woods's
words. This was apparent in the chitchat they shared throughout
Sunday's rounds and even more obvious in the easy camaraderie
they displayed during the 15-minute freshening-up period between
the two 18s. In the deserted locker room Woods was slumped at
the bar sipping a Sprite and munching on pretzels and a banana
when Els ambled in and casually inquired what he was drinking.
"Vodka on the rocks," Woods said with a smile.
Says Els, "I wouldn't say we're rivals, but there is a rivalry
on the golf course. I think it's only going to get bigger now."
This was a nod not only to the events at Bay Hill but also to
the calendar. This week brings the season's most important
tournament to date, the Players Championship, and two weeks
after that comes the Masters. The hype has only just begun,
especially for Els, whose game has never before been in bloom
during the spring. Of his five previous victories in the U.S.,
none had come before the middle of May, and his play has always
been especially desultory during the Florida swing that leads up
to the Masters. The thinking has been that the laconic Els takes
a long time to come out of hibernation from the off-season and
only warms to the chase in hot weather. His best friend and
Orlando neighbor, Frank Nobilo, has another theory. "If anything
is holding Ernie back at Augusta, it's his scheduling," he says.
"He's very loyal to the South African tour and the other
international events, and he flies all over the world from
January to March to support them. By the time the Masters comes,
So far in 1998 Els has played eight tournaments on four
continents. The difference this year is how well he has played
in them--six top-three finishes, including a victory in the
South African Open. He also leads the European tour money list.
"I've never really gone into the Masters with too much
confidence," he says. "This year it's another story."
That confidence has Els rethinking how he will play Augusta
National, where in his four appearances, starting in 1994, he
has tied for eighth, missed the cut and finished 12th and 17th.
"In the past I've gone in and shown the course too much
respect," Els says. "I've been too careful trying to place
shots, trying to leave the ball below the hole, trying to do
this, trying to do that. You've got to freewheel, let it fly and
go for every pin. That's what Tiger did last year, and that's
what I'm going to do."
Els looking to Woods for pointers? After Bay Hill, it ought to
be the other way around.
going to look like," said Els.