HE'S BACK (AGAIN)
Ernie Els's roller coaster kept rolling at Doral
Ernie Els was once the No. 1 player in golf--for exactly a
week, in June 1997. This abbreviated stay atop the World Ranking
is emblematic of Els's enigmatic career. Every stupendous
achievement seems to come with an asterisk, and that was again
the case with Els's victory last week at the Genuity
Championship, in Miami.
The good news for Els was that he won in the U.S. for the first
time in a year and a half and that he finally beat his nemesis,
Tiger Woods, to whom he has finished a runner-up six times. The
bad news was that at one point on Sunday he had frittered away
all but a stroke of what had been an eight-shot cushion. Woods
began the final round with birdies on the first three holes, and
thereafter Els's ball striking was erratic, his putting
tentative. In the end he eked out an even-par 72 and a two-stroke
victory, but he didn't exactly put the fear of Hogan in Woods.
This kind of maddening performance is routine for Els, who has
long frustrated fans with his unrealized potential. In 1997, at
27, he won his second U.S. Open, only two months after Woods's
epochal victory at the Masters. Els seemed destined to become the
Player to Woods's Nicklaus--a formidable package of game and guts
who could ride the rivalry to dizzying heights. Instead Els has
threatened to become the next Freddie Couples, a supreme talent
who gets off the bus one stop short of greatness.
Sated by his second Open victory, Els's performance slipped badly
in 1998 (when he fell out of the Tour's top 30) and '99 (missed
cuts at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship). He rallied to
put together an amazing run in the majors in 2000. Unfortunately
it coincided with Woods's historic summer. Els's hat trick of
second-place finishes (including a pair to Woods by a combined 23
strokes) recalled Greg Norman's Saturday Slam of '86. A player
who had once been feared was suddenly eliciting pity.
Els admits that the ensuing emotional hangover unsteadied him
throughout the first half of last year. At the British Open the
independent-minded Els sought out psychologist Jos Vanstiphout.
As he continued to work on healing his damaged psyche, Els also
made a long-overdue commitment to improving his conditioning.
Much has been made of the fact that Els's seven-year winning
streak on Tour ended in 2001, but late in the season his game
began to peak, as he won twice outside the U.S. He carried the
momentum into last month's European tour Heineken Classic, in
which he stormed to victory on one of the world's great courses,
Royal Melbourne. No wonder Els is feeling bullish. "My time is
coming," he said last week.
It's an exciting thought, but Els's commitment, like his results,
tends to waver. He's a fun-loving jet-setter who owns houses in
London, Orlando and his native South Africa, but the residence of
record for him and his wife, Leizl, is the tax haven of Paradise
Island, Bahamas. Els is also a doting father to two-year-old
Samantha as well as Ernie Els Design Ltd. The budding architect
already has two courses to his credit, in Urbana, Md., and
Shenzhen, China, of course.
The Tour's Florida swing begins the big push to the Masters, but
the peripatetic Els will travel to Augusta by way of Dubai, where
he's playing this week. When he finally arrives at Augusta, he
could thrive on the longer, tougher layout. Then again, his game
may not show up at all. With Els, you never know.
by Sal Johnson
Ernie Els and Tiger Woods have finished one-two at eight
tournaments worldwide, and the Genuity Championship was only the
second victory for Els, along with the 1999 Nissan Open.... Memo
to Hootie Johnson: Through the Genuity the average driving
distance on Tour is 277.5 yards. At the same point last year it
was 274.4.... Annika Sorenstam's playoff victory over Lorie Kane
at the Takefuji Classic was her fourth win in her last five
starts.... Karrie Webb won her second Women's Australian Open,
beating Suzann Pettersen in sudden death.... In yet another
playoff Tom Kite defeated Tom Watson at the SBC Classic, running
the latter's Senior playoff record to 0-3.... Alastair Forsyth's
victory at the Malaysian Open makes him the European tour's 18th
first-time winner in the last 14 months.
One of golf's great conflicts was finally resolved last week. The
USGA versus the ERC II? Nope. Ben Wright versus Valerie
Helmbrick? Negative. The antagonists here were Ian Leggatt, the
Tucson Open champ, and his erstwhile caddie, Dan (the Punk)
McQuilken. It all goes back to October's Michelob Championship
when Leggatt hit a shot O.B. and took out his frustration on his
golf bag, in the process smashing the Punk's prized Ebell watch,
which had been tucked into one of the pockets. After receiving a
threatening letter from the Punk's lawyer, Leggatt spent $2,600
on a new Ebell and, around the start of the year, sent it to his
now very ex-caddie. According to Leggatt, three weeks ago the
watch was returned to him by the lawyer, who wrote that the Punk
was demanding a duplicate of the original older model. Last
Saturday the Punk gruffly dismissed SI's inquiries about the
incident, but later that night he called Leggatt and said that he
would now accept the replacement watch. Says Leggatt,"I think all
the questions had something to do with his change of heart."
Going, gone: Jan Stephenson, 50, says she will retire at the end
of this season, while 15-year LPGA veteran Dottie Pepper will be
out eight to 12 weeks after having surgery on her left shoulder
During the first round of the Genuity Classic, Jesper Parnevik
(left, pleading his case) became the latest player to commit
golf's trendiest rules violation. On the 11th green, caddie
Lance Ten Broeck tossed a ball to Parnevik, who fumbled the
catch. The ball fell to the ground and moved Parnevik's mark, an
automatic one-stroke penalty, per rule 20-1. Three Senior tour
players have committed the same infraction in the past six
months--including Hale Irwin at February's Ace Classic, which he
went on to win--but Parnevik refused to turn in his scorecard
until he conferred by telephone with Tom Meeks, the chairman of
the USGA's competition committee. After signing for a 71,
Parnevik dismissed the rule as the "dumbest ever," but Ten
Broeck blamed the incident on cultural differences. "In Sweden
they don't catch too well," he said.
The proposed Majors tour makes the XFL look like a good idea.
This transparent TV cash grab would have the gravity of a bad
Silly Season event, with fields populated by one-hit wonders and
achy has-beens. Freddie, just retire already.
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