Easy Does It Trumping a star-studded field in Los Angeles, Ernie Els suddenly turned the debate over who's the best player in the world into a three-man free-for-all

March 01, 1999

Let's settle the debate right now. The question we've all been
wrestling with is this: Who's the best player in the world,
David Duval or Tiger Woods? Based on what transpired during last
week's Nissan (a.k.a. Los Angeles) Open at Riviera Country Club,
the correct answer is neither.

The best in the world has to be Ernie Els, the 29-year-old
two-time U.S. Open champion we forgot about because our
attention span is shorter than the list of Next Michael Jordan
candidates. While it's true that the World Ranking says Woods is
still numero uno with Duval second, No. 4 Els's standout
performance at Riviera--among a cast that featured more big guns
than Saving Private Ryan--means that Big Easy, as the laid-back
Els is known, is poised to reestablish himself in the Big Easy
chair.

Els didn't have a round higher than 68 and finished at
14-under-par 270, two strokes ahead of Woods, No. 3-ranked Davis
Love III and Ted Tryba--who in the third round blistered Riviera
for a course-record 61--and three clear of Duval and Nick Price.
"When you have golfers of this caliber all playing well, coming
out on top is satisfying," said Els. "The way the leader board
looked, I should've taken a picture. You don't beat these guys
too often. This will go down in my book as one of the good wins."

The case for Els's supremacy is a strong one. He has held the
top spot in the ranking before, as recently as last summer. He
fell from No. 1 after back problems hindered his swing, limited
his play and dampened his enthusiasm. Last June he was forced to
withdraw from the Buick Classic, where he was the defending
champ, because of back spasms. The next week he played hurt at
the U.S. Open, in which he was also defending his title, and
gamely made the cut. After that he played only six more events,
his last Tour appearance coming at the Canadian Open in
September. He was next seen in Australia in December, kicking
American butt in the Presidents Cup, in which he had a 3-1-1
record for the winning Internationals. "We tend to forget about
Ernie because he doesn't play over here that much," says Love.
"He's had a good career, but in today's world it's, What have
you done for me lately? Just like, The Bulls are over, now it's
the Lakers."

Actually Els has done plenty lately. Before making this year's
U.S. debut at Riviera, he won the South African PGA in January
and tied for sixth the next week in the South African Open. The
week after that he held a five-stroke lead in the final round of
the Heineken Open, in Australia, before a triple bogey tripped
him up and he lost by a shot. "I had won in South Africa and was
going great guns again in Australia," Els says. "I was thinking,
This is an easy game. One bad shot changed everything."

Els should be used to changes. His back problems began when he
started a training program, which prompted his caddie at the
time, Ricci Roberts, to joke that his boss should "get off the
[exercise] bike and get back on the beer." Els and Roberts
recently split, and Els's new caddie is Neal Wallace, who was
born in Belfast and raised in Johannesburg. The Nissan Open was
their second event as a team.

Els went through a more significant change on New Year's Eve,
when he wed his longtime girlfriend, Liezl Wehmeyer, in
Johannesburg. The late-afternoon ceremony was followed by a
reception for more than 350 guests, which turned into a New
Year's Eve party that lasted until dawn. "All hell broke loose,"
says Els, grinning. "It was quite a party."

One other change was Els's work schedule. He usually gets
together with his coach, Robert Baker of Orlando, in February
and March for an annual tune-up. This time they moved up their
sessions to November and December. Els's practice has already
paid off, not that anyone thought he needed the work. His fluid,
rhythmic swing has always been admired by others. When famed
instructor Bob Toski was inducted into the World Golf Teachers'
Hall of Fame in January, he met Baker, who was introduced as
Els's instructor. "Ernie Els?" Toski said. "The only thing you
can do with Ernie Els is f--- him up."

Baker laughed as he retold the story on Sunday evening outside
the Riviera clubhouse following Els's seventh Tour victory, his
29th worldwide. "Ernie's beautiful rhythm disguises a lot of
flaws," Baker said. "We've worked very hard. He used to be a
phenomenal putter but has struggled with that the last few
years."

The putter repeatedly came to Els's rescue last week (he tied
for seventh in L.A., averaging only 26.50 putts per round)
except on the 72nd green, where he missed a four-footer for par,
opening the door for Tryba and Woods. With a brisk wind slamming
into the players' faces, Riviera's famed 18th, a 451-yard par-4
that plays straight uphill to the clubhouse, turned nasty. Love
was the only golfer in the last three threesomes to make a par.
Els, holding a two-stroke lead, had to use a fairway wood for
his second shot--Tryba had hit an eight-iron over the 18th green
the day before when he needed a birdie to shoot 59, but he
bogeyed instead. Els flew the putting surface, chipped on, then
pulled his short putt badly to the left.

Tryba and Woods needed to birdie the final hole to tie. Tryba's
three-iron shot stuck in the thick kikuyu grass left of the
green, and he failed to get up and down. Woods hit a mammoth
drive 45 yards past Tryba and tried to knock down a five-iron
approach, but instead hit a shot he would best forget: a pitiful
push-slice over the gallery, down an embankment and into a
concession stand. Although Woods was given relief, he made bogey
from there. "It's asking a lot to make birdie on that hole with
the wind blowing 25 miles per hour in your face, and I'm glad he
didn't," Els said. "I was thankful the wind was blowing that
hard. The 18th was a brute."

These days, beating Duval and Woods ranks as news. Duval opened
with a 66 and shared the first-round lead with Bob Estes, but he
started the final round four strokes back and never made a move
as slick as the one he had made the previous week while
snowboarding in Sun Valley, Idaho. "I had one run that was
great," Duval said. "I put the board down to see if I could slow
down, and it slid out from under me. I was tripping pretty good.
I slid 400 yards on my back and my butt. I was looking up to
make sure I wasn't going into any trees, but I was laughing. It
was fun. I had snow packed up the back of my jacket."

Duval's nine wins in his last 31 starts and that high-profile 59
in the final round of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic are catching
up to him. Even bundled up in helmet and goggles, he was
recognized on the slopes. "You've got a lot of big stars who go
up there, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks," Duval said.
Who are they, a reporter joked, Nike tour players? "No," Duval
replied, deadpan, "Hooters tour."

Woods, who had gone 62-65 the weekend before to win the Buick
Invitational, had a chance to make it two straight after a
third-round 65 lifted him into a tie for second with Love and
Els, two shots behind Tryba. A sound like a thunderclap arose on
Sunday afternoon when Woods, who grew up in the Los Angeles
area, rolled in a birdie putt on the infamous 4th hole, a
monstrous 236-yard par-3. That noise paled in comparison with
the roar a few minutes later when he nearly aced the 175-yard
par-3 6th. When Woods tapped in for another birdie, he was tied
for the lead. He couldn't make any magic on the back nine,
however, and a missed 2 1/2-footer for par at the 13th hole
proved costly.

Els's timing couldn't have been better. He's considered one of
the game's best match players (chart, page G10), having won the
World Match Play, in England, three years in a row, from 1994 to
'96. Els was the early favorite in this week's Andersen
Consulting Match Play, the first of the new World Championship
events. Wouldn't a victory at La Costa rearrange his position
vis-a-vis Woods and Duval in the ranking, at least in our minds?
"They've played their way to the top," Els says. "Tiger finished
second [in L.A.] and won last week. David was fifth, and he has
won twice. He has a phenomenal record, winning seven, eight,
nine, 10--whatever--times in the last two years. At the moment
I'd like to maybe think of myself as Number 3."

Then who's No. 1? Duval or Woods? "It's probably a pretty good
tie," Els says.

So the great debate continues, only now there's a third-party
candidate.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY J.D. CUBAN COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK WIDE RIGHT Needing a birdie to tie, Woods cracked on 18, sending this overcooked approach shot into a concession stand.

"The way the leader board looked, I should have taken a picture,"
Els said. "You don't beat these guys too often."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)