At long last, we've found the dominant player--the Next
Nicklaus--we were hoping for. We waited two decades for his
arrival, getting teased along the way by the flamboyant Greg
Norman, the graceful Fred Couples, the personable Nick Price and
the enigmatic David Duval. For a while we even pinned our hopes
on a young Stanford student, Eldrick Woods, who dashed them by
quitting the game after winning a third straight U.S. Amateur.
Now, though, we are secure in the knowledge that the Man has
finally arrived. Everyone is talking, to the point of exclusion,
to the point of ridiculousness, about a single player, Ernie
Els, the new king of golf.
There's only one problem: Having the same guy win week after week
is boring. Els's seven-victory season hasn't been nearly as much
fun as we thought it would be. In fact the way he has dominated
has become tiresome. Things could have been worse, though. Els is
only a couple of lip-outs at Augusta from going for the Grand
Slam at this week's PGA.
Ever since he won at Disney World late last year, Els has been on
fire. He was virtually unopposed at the Mercedes Championships,
and after impressively winning the Memorial, he beat Miguel Angel
Jimenez in a playoff at Pebble Beach to claim his third U.S. Open
title. How good was Els in the Open? He was two over par on a
track so difficult that even Superman wouldn't have been able to
get into the red.
There was more of the same at St. Andrews, where Els opened with
a 66 that demoralized all challengers. Then, in his first
post-British Open start, Els went wire to wire at the
International, piling up points as if he were playing in an
Arena Football League game.
Els has become the sole topic of conversation on Tour, and the
other players are sick of it. Everywhere they turn, all anyone
wants to talk about is Ernie, Ernie, Ernie. Tournament sponsors
are in a tizzy, too. If Els skips an event, that tournament is
dismissed as unimportant. The winner is reduced to saying things
like, "I played so well even Ernie would've had a tough time
beating me." Sure, pal, whatever you say.
The spotlight is squarely on Els at Valhalla. Sure, defending
champ Sergio Garcia hasn't done much since his memorable shot
from behind the tree at Medinah led to his first major title, but
in other years, a golfer of his caliber, a guy who played such an
integral role in Europe's heart-stopping half-point triumph in
last fall's Ryder Cup, would be the focus of pretournament
coverage. Not this year. Everyone's writing about Ernie, the No.
1-ranked player in the world.
As for that '99 Ryder Cup, there are two schools of thought on
why the U.S. lost. One pins the blame on Duval, the '98 Masters
champ, who had a bad week. The second holds that the U.S.
suffered from a lack of experience. The team needed veteran
leadership. A player like Mark O'Meara would've been perfect if
he hadn't basically retired after winning a couple of Tour events
in '97. If only someone had pushed O'Meara back then. Even in his
40s, he was capable of filling the big gap in his resume and
winning a major.
Now we need somebody to push Els, who is a nice enough guy, but
one who hasn't exactly inspired the second coming of Arnie's
Army. If Els had, maybe the Golf Channel would still be around.
(If anyone takes another crack at such a channel, my advice would
be to get a hot teacher to do the instruction shows. Butch Harmon
is so yesterday.)
Els's dominance spells trouble for the Tour. Yes, next year's
Players Championship will be played for an eye-popping $2.5
million, but Buick is discontinuing its sponsorship of four Tour
events because the company can't find the cool golfing
spokesperson it's looking for to attract young car buyers. The
golf industry already took a hit when Nike, which could've been a
big player in the business, dropped plans to make a special new
ball and got out of golf altogether. The sport wasn't drawing a
hip enough demographic, according to company officials.
Let's face it, Ernie Els is golf in the year 2000. All else is
irrelevant, and if you think that's going to change anytime
soon, you've probably been smoking the same stuff as the old
Tour caddie who keeps saying that the Woods kid could've been a
contender. Some guy named Fluff.
difficult even Superman wouldn't have been able to get into the