Search

Impact Player Ernie Els left his mark on the International, but can he do the same against Tiger Woods at the PGA?

Aug. 14, 2000
Aug. 14, 2000

Table of Contents
Aug. 14, 2000

College Football Preview 2000

Impact Player Ernie Els left his mark on the International, but can he do the same against Tiger Woods at the PGA?

At the International, where the air is thin and the milk shakes
are thick, it's easy for the PGA Tour's finest to go a little
soft. The tournament offers an alternate version of reality, and
not just because a nine-iron carries 180 yards at the Castle
Pines Golf Club, in the foothills of the Rockies outside Denver.
The International is famous for pampering its players, providing
everything from early-week fly-fishing expeditions to Haagen-Dazs
fountain drinks.

This is an article from the Aug. 14, 2000 issue

"You know, you're not playing for a score here," said last week's
wire-to-wire winner, Ernie Els, and his sentiments had nothing to
do with the tournament's unique modified Stableford scoring
system. "It's kind of like you're playing a game with your
buddies." In short the International is a flashback to a more
decadent era on Tour--the mid-1990s, say, when players got fat and
happy on inflated purses and downsized expectations, when one win
equaled a standout season and a couple of majors a great career.
Tiger Woods has made a mockery of these old standards, and though
he skipped the International, Woods hovered over the proceedings
like the dark clouds that led to the tournament's annual weather
delays.

The storyline at the International featured an intriguing mix of
the old and the new, two generations of players measuring
themselves against and being measured by Woods's achievements. At
the top of the International's leader board throughout the final
round was a trio that used to be the most glamorous names in the
game. Watching Els, Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman duke it out
for the championship, it was hard not to think back a few years,
when Norman's two or three victories a year kept him comfortably
atop the World Ranking, and when Els and Mickelson were
precocious twentysomethings in a race to determine who would be
the Next Nicklaus. Now these three glamour boys are little more
than filler, no matter how many birdie putts they rained in at
Castle Pines.

Norman, last seen shooting an 82 at the U.S. Open, was playing
his first tournament since a June 28 operation to repair a torn
labrum in his right hip, and he spent all week trying to convince
observers--and, it seemed, himself--that at 45 his body is sound
and his spirit unbroken. The Shark is winless since 1997, and his
fourth-place finish at the International was a moral victory, but
in the go-go 21st century no one cares about top fives. Mickelson
was bidding for his fourth victory in 2000, which would have
equaled his career high, set in '96. "I thought that was a great
year," says the 30-year-old Mickelson, "but Tiger makes that look
stupid."

In a world without Woods, Els could be chasing the ghost of Bobby
Jones. Instead the International was his first Tour victory in a
year and a half, hard to imagine given how effortlessly he blew
away the field at Castle Pines. Having finished second to Woods
four times this season, including at the U.S. and British Opens,
Els, who's also 30, has been reduced to gallows humor. "With a
little bit of luck I'll finish second every time in the majors,"
he said last Tuesday.

As Woods's victory total grows and his ostensible competition
withers, a nation turns its lonely eyes to the next generation
of players, hoping to find a suitable rival or at least an
occasional challenger. Four exceptionally talented
youngsters--David Gossett, Hunter Haas, Charles Howell III and
Adam Scott--came to Castle Pines to further nascent pro careers,
and if their golf wasn't particularly inspiring, their rhetoric
was. "You are what you believe you are," said Gossett, 21, the
reigning U.S. Amateur champ, who made his debut as a pro last
week. "As far as being part of this new breed, I think that will
be an advantage if we think it is. If not, we can find ways to
be intimidated as well."

Gossett's pro career began with a bang--specifically, an opening
drive of 354 yards--but it was all downhill putts from there.
Ordinarily the most steady Eddie of players, Gossett blew his
ball all over Castle Pines and missed the cut with a homely score
of minus-9. (Under the Stableford format five points are awarded
for an eagle and two for a birdie. A point is deducted for a
bogey and three for anything worse.) Self-lacerating by nature,
Gossett called his performance "very sloppy" and "disgusting,"
and vowed to self-flagellate at the practice range.

Howell, 21 and the reigning NCAA champion (from Oklahoma State),
flew into town on the wings of a third-place finish the week
before at the John Deere Classic, only his third Tour event as a
pro. He'd produced some Woodsian final-round dramatics at the TPC
at Deere Run. Howell holed out from the fairway for an eagle on
the 14th hole, which propelled him into a tie for the lead.
Though he missed the Michael Clark-Kirk Triplett playoff by a
stroke, the rousing finish only strengthened the belief that
Howell, with his mature game and almost unhealthy devotion to
improvement, might be the guy to stand up to Woods. (The $176,800
payday also put him in good position to play his way into the top
125 on the money list and avoid Q school, the immediate goal of
all these late-season rookies.) When asked about Tiger at the
International, Howell didn't back off. "It's definitely
motivating," the Augusta native drawled. "If you want to be the
best, you've got to beat the best, so beating Tiger is my goal."
Normally an explosive birdie-maker, a weary Howell never got it
going at the International, closing his second round with nine
straight pars to narrowly miss the cut.

Though he's the least heralded of this Fab Four, Hunter Jefferson
Huck Finn Haas was the only one of the kids to play on the
weekend, though in the International's quirky format he didn't
make the second cut, which reduced the field to 36 players for
the final round. As might be deduced from his name, Haas is a
swashbuckling character. He was alone among his young
contemporaries to take time out of his practice schedule to go on
the fly-fishing expedition, and during a postround interview last
Friday he was distracted more than once by attractive women who
happened by. For all of that, Haas brings a suffocating intensity
to the golf course. "I've always had to fight my way to the top,"
he said. "It's like I'm drowning and I've got to get a breath of
air."

Even within his own family Haas, 23, has been a perpetual
underdog, as four of his six older siblings have won a city,
state or high school golf championship. He learned the game at
the knee of Roland Harper, the longtime pro at Colonial Country
Club in Fort Worth, but his family couldn't afford the club dues,
and when he wanted to tee it up, Haas was consigned to public
courses. After riding his wizardly short game to victory at the
1999 U.S. Public Links, thereby earning an invitation to the
Masters, Haas wrote a letter to Arnold Palmer requesting a guided
tour of Augusta National. During their practice round together
Haas birdied the first three holes.

"There's no fear in these kids," says Norman approvingly. This
was made abundantly clear to him at February's Greg Norman
International in Sydney, where Scott shot a 10-under 63, the
lowest score by an amateur in the history of the Australasian
tour. Previously overshadowed by his mate Aaron Baddeley, Scott,
19, a native of Hope Island, Queensland, came into his own over
the last 12 months, during which he was an All-America as a
freshman at Nevada-Las Vegas and then, this spring, a force on
the European tour, where back-to-back top six finishes at the
Moroccan Open and the Benson & Hedges International convinced him
that he was ready to turn pro.

Though he has long been a source of inspiration and advice,
Norman had never teed it up with Scott until a Tuesday practice
round at the International. "He blew my mind," said Norman. "He
launches it as far as Tiger and hits it as straight as Tiger and
putts as well as Tiger." Gesturing toward his heart, Norman
added, "But it depends on what's right here."

Issues of the heart will be a dominant theme at next week's PGA
Championship at Valhalla Country Club in Louisville, where Woods
will be looking to be the first man since Ben Hogan in 1953 to
win three majors in a season. Gossett, Haas, Howell and Scott
will be at home watching on TV, and without the impetuousness of
youth, it will be up to golf's old guard to make a stand. Els
and Mickelson have to rate as having the best chance of turning
back Woods. Mickelson was the 36-hole leader at Valhalla when
the PGA was played there in 1996, and he has elevated his game
this year--not that many have noticed. Els left Castle Pines
with his old quiet confidence, allowing that "it's always good
to have a bit of form going into a major."

In truth he was no less than dazzling at the International, which
he basically won over the first two days, when he scored a record
34 points. (In medal play his scores would have been 65-63.)
Though Els listed a bit on Saturday, he maintained his
eight-point lead over both Mickelson and Norman, and on Sunday he
protected his lead expertly and birdied three of the last five
holes to seal the win.

Though he is now second on the money list with a career high of
more than $3 million, as well as second in the World Ranking,
Els knows that history can't be bought. Of the PGA he says,
correctly, "It's the last chance to make an impact."

It's now or never for Els and the rest of the veterans who
enjoyed their leisurely stay in Colorado. The next generation is
impatiently awaiting its turn.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUNDTWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Playing through The new kids on Tour, like Scott (left) and Haas, have a common goal: measuring up to Woods.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Shark shooter The 45-year-old Norman, winless since 1997 and coming off hip surgery, claimed a moral victory at Castle Pines.
"He blew my mind," Norman said of Scott. "He launches it as far
as Tiger and hits it as straight as Tiger and putts as well as
Tiger."