Search

The Week

Jan. 20, 2003
Jan. 20, 2003

Table of Contents
Jan. 20, 2003

The Week

Edited By Alan Shipnuck

New Year's Resolution
Mercedes champ Ernie Els is loaded for Tiger this season

This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2003 issue

With 2003 only a few hours old, Ernie Els arrived at his beach
home in Herolds Bay, South Africa, and found an unusual New
Year's present--a trespasser conked out in his bed. Police
removed the intruder without incident, but as omens go, it wasn't
the best. This season is perhaps the most important in Els's
mostly brilliant career, and a time of transition for a new
father who says he has "new equipment, new clothing, new shoes,
new everything this year." That's why his victory at last week's
season-opening Mercedes Championships is so tantalizing.

Els burst onto the scene at the 1994 U.S. Open as a fearless
24year-old who was supposed to overwhelm the sport, but for all
the victories that have followed, he has given little indication
that he's willing to pay the price to usurp Tiger Woods as the
world's best player. This ambivalence has been reflected in the
World Ranking--Els was No. 1 for exactly one week, in June '97,
following his second U.S. Open victory. But last week on Maui,
with Woods and Phil Mickelson missing, Els strutted around like
the tournament's alpha male on his way to a dominant,
wire-to-wire win.

With rounds of 64-65-65-67 on the par-73 Plantation course at
Kapalua, Els set an alltime PGA Tour record with a 31-under
total, and he saved his most impressive stretch for the back nine
on Sunday. After a game K.J. Choi birdied the 11th hole to move
within a stroke of him, Els birdied four of the next five holes,
storming to an eight-shot victory. "I used to be a great
front-runner," Els says. "I had a couple of mishaps. But then the
last year or so I became a good front-runner again."

Els has never been afraid to voice the churning self-doubt that
is usually masked by his Big Easy persona, and some of his scars
were inflicted at past Mercedes. In 2000 he played brilliantly
down the stretch but was trumped by Woods in an epic playoff,
setting the tone for a lost year in which Els finished a
discouraged runner-up in three straight majors. The effect? "I
was just nowhere," Els said candidly last week. "I was just
flat." His malaise carried over into 2001, when he led the
Mercedes by four strokes heading to the back nine on Saturday but
kicked away the victory.

Els's confidence was not fully restored until his gritty win at
last year's British Open, and that breakthrough has left him not
sated but rather more determined than ever to realize his awesome
potential. Els's game has already been energized by a new
Titleist 983K driver and a new ball. For a strapping, 6'3"
210-pounder, Els was a mystifying 84th in driving distance on the
Tour last year (and an abysmal 162nd in accuracy). Last week he
pounded the ball to places rarely visited on the Plantation
course, playing the par-5s in 16 under--tying a Tour record--and
making four eagles. (He made only six all of last year.)

If Els can continue to improve his driving, he will further
narrow the gap on Woods, a distance that is not as great as some
might think. Viewed from the parochial perspective of the PGA
Tour, Woods seemingly blew away Els in 2002, more than doubling
his money ($6.9 million to $3.3 million) and winning five
tournaments to Ernie's two. But Els, who keeps houses on three
continents plus the Bahamas, is golf's only truly international
superstar. The 2002 world money list reflects his brand of
globe-trotting. Woods led with $8.3 million, but Els was a
credible second with $6.3, a million and a half bucks ahead of
Mickelson, who's No. 3. The disparity between Woods and Els is
actually less than it appears; the world money list does not
include skins games, pro-ams or shootouts, but Woods's total is
speciously padded by the $500,000 he won at the four-person,
36-hole Grand Slam of Golf exhibition. As for victories, Woods
won six times worldwide last year, Els five.

The balance of power between these two stars is clearly tilting.
Woods may miss the entirety of the West Coast swing waiting for
his surgically repaired knee to heal. Meanwhile, one week into a
happy new year, Els is No. 1 on the money list.

TRUST ME

The outrageously low scores at the Mercedes are just the start,
as all of golf's scoring records will be shattered this year.
Drivers are bigger than ever, and the latest solid-core balls are
even hotter, but the difference will be deadlier short games,
thanks to specialized putters and four-wedge
arsenals.

O. B.

Thomas Wyman, the former chairman of CBS who in November became
the first member to resign from Augusta National in protest of
its all-male membership, was laid to rest on Monday in a somber
two-hour ceremony at Emmanuel Church, near Boston Common. Wyman
died on Jan. 8 from complications related to abdominal infection.
He was 73. Nearly 300 people turned out for Monday's formal Mass,
and in the last of three eulogies, Allan Lerner drew an audible
murmur when he said that his Amherst pal was happy to have
addressed "Hootie and Augusta National" before dying. **Talk
about home field advantage: 2001 Mercedes champ Jim Furyk spent
last week at his gorgeous home along the 18th hole of the
Plantation Course, enjoying the sweeping views of Molakai. Since
finishing the spread last summer, Furyk and his wife, Tabitha,
had spent only two weeks in Maui, but they're certainly attached
to the place. The Furyks are rumored to have recently been
offered $10 million for the house--about twice what it cost to
build--but they turned down the offer. * Following the first
round of the Mercedes, Sergio Garcia celebrated his 23rd birthday
by taking 13 friends and family members to dinner in Lahaina.
That was the high point of his week. On the 11th hole of the
second round Garcia bent his putter in frustration and was forced
to hole out with an assortment of other clubs for the rest of the
round. Over the final two days he used a belly putter for the
first time in competition. **Early favorite for Tour wife of the
year? Beth Smith. Her hubby, Chris, slipped on a brand-new pair
of spikes for the first round of the Mercedes and by the 6th hole
had developed a blister on his left foot. On the 8th tee he asked
Beth if she could "run up to the clubhouse" and get his other
pair of shoes. Beth gamely hustled down the deep ravine that
leads to the 8th green, across the roller-coaster par5 9th and up
a steep hill to the clubhouse. After getting the shoes, she
trudged up another hill to the 10th tee, where she delivered the
shoes to her husband. "She kept me in the tournament," said
Chris, who was two over through eight holes but bounced back to
finish with a four-under 69. "I thought I was going to have to
withdraw." **With rounds of 74717075, Rich Beem became the first
player to finish dead last at two Mercedes Championships, having
completed the first leg in 2000.

THE POLL
VOTE AT GOLFONLINE.COM

THIS WEEK: Since March 2002, Ernie Els had been No. 3 in the
World Ranking to Phil Mickelson's No. 2, but following the
Mercedes, Els is now No. 2 to Lefty's No. 3. Who is the better
player?

LAST POLL: What story would you most like to see this year: Tiger
Woods wins the Grand Slam; Phil Mickelson takes his first major;
Suzy Whaley contends at the Greater Hartford Open; or the Augusta
National controversy is resolved?

Woods......29% Mickelson......56%

Whaley.....6% August.........9%

--Based on 11,395 responses to our informal survey

TOP SWAG ON TOUR
On Maui, every day is Christmas for the pampered pros and their
wives

Every player at the Mercedes Championships is given seven free
nights at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and the use of a Mercedes, but
it's the little things that make the tournament such a cherished
experience. The pampering begins upon arrival in Maui, as a
stretch limo whisks the jet-lagged mainlanders from the airport
to the resort. At check-in each player is given a goodie bag that
contains a Hawaiian shirt, two pairs of sunglasses and gift
certificates to five local restaurants. Their significant others
receive a woven purse stuffed with beaded slippers, a gift
certificate to the Ritz-Carlton's spa and a hand-painted silk
bikini cover-up. "It's pretty overwhelming," says Matt Kuchar,
who finished 25th in his first Mercedes. "A lot of the things
they give us are gift-wrapped, so it feels like Christmas."

On Wednesday of tournament week Santa discreetly placed more
goodies in the players' rooms: another canvas tote, filled with a
plush Kapalua beach towel, chocolate-covered macadamia nut
cookies, two T-shirts featuring a list of the field and a CD of
native songs by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. More swag arrived on
Friday evening, including a leather travel wallet and a sterling
silver bracelet with the distinctive Kapalua butterfly. "I almost
bought the same bracelet in a shop two days ago!" said Chris
Riley's wife, Michelle, last Saturday. "We're so spoiled. We're
disappointed now if we open the door and there's nothing new."

Because Chris and Michelle are newlyweds--they were married on
Dec. 14 in New Orleans--the tournament staff also sent up
champagne and wine. These little gestures of hospitality can
sometimes be extravagant. Last year Sergio Garcia expressed
interest in taking his family on a helicopter tour of the island,
and the Mercedes folks not only made the arrangements but also
picked up the tab. This year Chris DiMarco and his family enjoyed
a chartered fishing trip, during which he landed a 25pound
mahi-mahi.

"Our focus is to make sure the families, and not just the
players, feel very, very well taken care of," says Nancy Cross,
the Mercedes' tournament director.

Mission accomplished.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES[INSIDE COVER] Easy Opener Ernie Els Kicks Off the 2003 Season with a Record Win G13 HITTING A NEW LOW Els was 31 under par at the Mercedes Championships.COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH BIG, EASY Wielding a new driver, Els overpowered the Plantation course's par-5s.COLOR PHOTO: ERIC RISBERG/AP (GARCIA) SO SOON? Garcia went belly-up at the Mercedes.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID BERGMAN (8) A Kapalua butterfly (above) and local tunesCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (8) Goodie bagCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (8) Cover meCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (8) Beaded for the beachCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (8) A Bikini Girl bag for herCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (8) Nuts! And ChocolateCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (8) Check-in booty