REDMOND, Wash. -- His back is better, and Ernie Els is slowly recapturing his touch with the putter. Other things are troubling him these days.
Since winning the U.S. Open as a 24-year-old in his first year on the PGA Tour, Els has been a factor on Sunday in at least one major championship every year.
Now, the South African is trying to remember what that feels like.
"I'd like to be in contention again," he said Monday at Sahalee Country Club. "And I've got to do it here."
Els led the PGA Championship through three rounds in 1995 before finishing in a tie for third. He tied for second at the British Open behind Tom Lehman a year later, then won his second U.S. Open last year at Congressional.
He showed signs early in 1998 of rising to the top of the game, especially after he dusted Tiger Woods and Davis Love III in a 36-hole Sunday at Bay Hill and took over the No. 1 ranking.
But Els' performance in majors has been disappointing. After tying for 16th at the Masters, he injured his back a week before the U.S. Open and tied for 48th.
And at the British Open last month, he was never a factor in tying for 29th.
"I haven't played in three weeks, but everything is coming together," he said. "I've been working on my putting quite a bit and I'm hitting it solid."
Whether that's good enough for Sahalee is anyone's guess.
Like just about everyone else in the field, Els isn't quite sure what to expect out of the tree-lined fairways of Sahalee, other than the fact it's the most beautiful course he's ever played.
"And it's a pretty good test, too," he said. "Trees come into play everywhere, and if you miss the fairway you're probably going to make bogey. You better hit as straight as you can."
Even at Sahalee, that might not be good enough. Just ask Colin Montgomerie.
Montgomerie's drive on the 18th hole Monday during a practice round found the fairway and left him perplexed.
He folded his arms and squinted as he surveyed the final 200 yards, his eyes locked onto a 50-foot cedar just behind a 100-foot Douglas fir, both guarding the left quarter of the green.
His first shot curved into the thick of the cedar and dropped down into heavy, 4-inch rough. His second shot followed the same path, only this time it ricocheted across the fairway some 50 yards short of the green.
By this time, Montgomerie had already dropped a third ball. This one stopped 15 feet short of the hole, drawing applause from a small gallery and a sigh of surrender from the Scotsman.
"It's a lovely course," Montgomerie said. "It's a beautiful place to play and a beautiful test of golf."
Then he gazed back at the 18th fairway and smiled.
"The trees get in the way too often," he said. "That's the only problem. From above, I'm sure it looks like you can only walk single-file down the fairways."
Trees figure to be the primary problem confronting the strong field at the last major championship of the year.
Masters and British Open champion Mark O'Meara will try to become the first player since Ben Hogan to win three majors in a year, and Davis Love III will try to become the first back-to-back PGA champion since it went to stroke play in 1958.
Sahalee will also give the 20-somethings one last chance to win a major after they took three of the four in 1997.
For all of them, Sahalee presents a new challenge.
The PGA Championship returns to Washington state for the first time since Bob Hamilton's stunning 1-up victory over Byron Nelson in 1944. The PGA Tour stopped coming to Seattle in 1966, three years before Ted Robinson carved Sahalee out of a forest of trees next to Lake Sammamish.
"Guys who don't do well, or even guys who do well, always find something they don't like about a course," said Fred Couples, who learned the game on Seattle's public courses. "But I don't know what's not to like about this."
Not many dared guess what kind of score will win the Wanamaker Trophy, if only because not many have an idea what to expect. Couples occasionally plays Sahalee when he's in town, although the rough is not as punishing or the greens as table-top quick.
"I remember shooting a lot of 74s and 75s," he said. "I hope I can shoot a 74 or 75 one day this week, because that's not going to be too bad."
The last two majors have been won at even par -- O'Meara at Royal Birkdale and U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen at The Olympic Club. Sahalee is sure to give up its share of birdies, especially with two par 5s that can be reached in two.
But the beauty of Sahalee is also its greatest menace.
The trees meet players on the first tee and follow them around until they are finished. If the massive firs and cedars aren't daunting enough, the fairways are no wider than a three-car garage in some spots.
And while it's easy to be swept up in Sahalee's charm, just wait for a tee shot to get buried in the clumpy rough, or an approach to get swatted out of the sky by one of the towering trees.
"We all realize there's a tournament to be won," England's Lee Westwood said. "There's no time to stop and look around."
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