Trading Places On the eve of the U.S. Open, Memorial winner Ernie Els has overtaken Tiger Woods as the game's real No. 1

June 14, 2004

It was Jack Nicklaus himself who drove home the point that
something is amiss in the golf universe. The incident occurred
last Friday at Nicklaus's Ode to the Masters (a.k.a. the Memorial
Tournament) on the Course That Jack Built (Muirfield Village Golf
Club) in the Town That Jack Conceived (Stepfordesque Dublin,
Ohio). It happened at the par-3 12th hole, which not
coincidentally is a dead ringer for the famed 12th at Augusta's
Amen Corner, except that instead of Rae's Creek, Nicklaus has a
lake guarding his green.

The 64-year-old Nicklaus sent a six-iron shot toward the green,
right at the flag, and we mean right at the flag. His ball slammed
directly into the hole, hit the bottom of the cup ... and bounced
almost 20 feet straight up in the air, then trickled to a stop on
the front fringe. "I end up missing the green after hitting it in
the hole," said a chagrined Nicklaus. "I said, `How long did it
stay in the hole?' I wanted to know whether we could count it." The
answer: No. Thus an extraordinary shot was turned into a routine
par. Nicklaus nevertheless went on to make the cut.

When the laws of physics turn against the greatest player in the
history of the game at his own tournament, on his own course, in
his own town--we won't even get into whether this was Nicklaus's
final appearance on Tour--something, indeed, is amiss.

The finish of the Memorial bore that out. Sure, we've seen this
before--Ernie Els and Tiger Woods fighting it out on the back nine
on Sunday. We know how it always ends. The best player in the world
makes three birdies on the front nine, adds another on the 10th,
then one-putts six of the last seven greens (three for birdie) to
pull away for the win. The challenger, as usual, has his swing fall
apart at crucial times. There's a tee shot into the woods at the
par-5 11th, a horrible iron into the water at 14, an approach shot
blocked so badly at the 15th that all he can do is laugh in
disgust, and a tee shot pulled into the crowd at the par-3 16th.

Only thing is, this time it was Els playing like the world's No. 1,
making all those birdies and clutch putts for par, and Woods whose
swing unraveled down the stretch.

What it meant was that in the end at the Memorial, it came down to
a duel between Els and America's most beloved righthanded golfer,
Fred Couples. Els pulled away from Couples--whose week of
Lotto-like good fortune included eight hole-outs from off the
green, including one from 70 yards--by stiffing iron shots on the
final two holes for tap-in birdies and a four-shot win.

With the U.S. Open only a week away, what should we make of the
Ernie-Tiger role reversal? For one thing, it's very similar to the
way Woods has changed places with Phil Mickelson. Like Phil, Tiger
is one of the Tour leaders in birdies, but he's also hitting
surprising, off-the-planet shots. That used to be Mickelson's M.O.,
but Lefty has since embraced a more conservative approach, putting
fairways and greens ahead of monster drives and showy flop shots.
Woods finished only a shot out of a playoff in each of his last two
starts before the Memorial, and after a so-so start at Muirfield he
looked like the Tiger of old by going 12 under on the next 45
holes. On the final nine, however, he reverted to the Tiger of late
while parring in.

Woods is right when he says his game is "close," but as the last
nine showed, his game is not yet fully back to Tigermania strength.
However, the oh-my-God! quality of some of his shots remains. For
example, at the 14th hole on Sunday, Woods pulled his four-iron tee
shot into a water hazard. After taking a drop, he hit his approach
shot long and left of the green, where he faced a downhill pitch to
a green that sloped away toward more water. Tiger played a soft
flop shot that landed on the green and--oh my God!--went into the
cup for a par. "I'll be honest with you, I was just trying to keep
it out of the water," Woods said. "It was all luck."

Despite his last-nine mishaps, Woods finished third, six shots
behind Els, and afterward was decidedly upbeat and smiling. At
least more so than after his opening 72, when he declined to meet
with reporters, saying brusquely, "And talk about what?" He is
excited now, he said on Sunday evening, because he hit the ball
well all week. "I'm playing better," he said. "This is another step
in the right direction."

If the World Ranking were done by ballot, Woods would probably come
in no higher than fourth right now. Els, with 11 top 10 finishes,
including three wins, in 14 starts worldwide this year, not to
mention 10 victories in the last 18 months, is the real No. 1
player at the moment. Mickelson's clutch Masters victory and his
new approach make him a formidable No. 2. Vijay Singh is third,
thanks to three wins in 2004. Bottom line: For the first time since
1999 Woods will not go into a major championship as the man to
beat. At Shinnecock Hills the cofavorites are Els and Mickelson.

The biggest challenge Els will face at Shinnecock Hills is fatigue.
The U.S. Open will be his sixth tournament in as many weeks--a
herculean slog by PGA Tour standards. Els had good reasons to play
in all of the events. For one, he entered this week's Buick Classic
at Westchester, outside New York City, mainly because if he
skipped the tournament he might come up short of the required
minimum of 15 events to maintain his PGA Tour membership.

Els's underappreciated short game could be a critical factor at the
Open. He gets attention for his languid swing, but his play around
the greens is nearly on a par with Woods's. A bunker shot was the
key stroke in his 2002 British Open win at the other Muirfield, and
last week he was almost giddy when he learned that he had needed
only 100 putts for four rounds on Muir-field Village's slick
greens. "I've never done that," Els told Nicklaus on Sunday
evening. "You've probably done that 40 times."

Nicklaus shook his head. "Never," he said.

Els said he hadn't enjoyed a putting week the way he did at
Memorial since he won the first of his two U.S. Open titles, at
Oakmont in 1994. "My putter definitely won this tournament for me,"
he said.

Earlier, Nicklaus had sneaked up behind a podium outside the
clubhouse where Woods was answering reporters' questions after his
round. Woods felt a tug on the back of his pants leg, turned and
saw Nicklaus, who shook his hand. "Good luck in a couple of weeks,"
Nicklaus said, referring to the Open.

Woods smiled and nodded. It was a nice thought. It was also a novel
one--that Tiger Woods might need luck to win a major.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH HOT TICKET Els has gone on a 10-win tear over the last 18 months, while Woods (inset) has struggled to put together a complete game. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED VUICH LUCKY STIFF Couples, who came in second, holed out from off the green eight times and played Els tough until the end.

Eagle (-2)
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Double Bogey (+2)