Originally created 07/17/02

The truth hurts: Tiger is tough to beat



GULLANE, Scotland -- Nothing is wrong with admitting the obvious.

Tiger Woods is tough to beat.

Ernie Els is considered one of his top challengers, a big man with a graceful swing and two U.S. Open titles. He has beaten Woods three times and lost twice as often when both of them were in the hunt.

But to hear the Big Easy describe his chances at Muirfield this week in the British Open, some might have thought he was rehearsing his concession speech.

"When I've played well, Tiger still has beaten me," Els said. "What do you do? I work hard at everything in my game. When I've had it going, I still got beat. Maybe I'm not good enough, then. Who knows?"

This is not resignation, this is realization.

Two years ago in Hawaii was a rarity in these times - two world-class players on top of their games, slugging it out over the final 36 holes. Els erased a four-stroke deficit against Woods in the third round, and Sunday was a classic.

The lead changed seven times. Neither player led by more than one stroke. Both made eagle on the 18th hole to force a playoff. Both made birdie on the first extra hole.

It finally ended when Woods holed a birdie putt on No. 1 at Kapalua's Plantation course that the locals have never seen anyone make - a 40-footer from above the hole, downhill, into the grain, with about 3 feet of break.

What do you do?

Els must have felt like walking straight into the Pacific Ocean and swimming home to South Africa. He could have left with confidence, realizing the only thing that separated him from Woods was a miracle putt.

That summer changed everything, however.

Woods won the Memorial by five strokes. He won the U.S. Open by 12 strokes. He won the British Open by eight strokes.

Els was the runner-up in all three of them, king of the B-flight.

"You can beat the field," Els said. "But it doesn't mean you're going to beat Tiger."

Davis Love III has won twice with Woods in the field - the PGA Championship at Winged Foot and the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am last year - but not when Woods has been breathing down his neck.

He lost 5 and 4 to Woods in the semifinals of the Match Play Championship two years ago. A month later, he was two strokes behind going into the final round of the Bay Hill Invitational when he offered a blunt assessment of his chances.

"He's No. 1. There's no getting around that," Love said. "And he's tough to beat. There's no getting around that."

There was no beating Woods that day. Love finished four strokes behind, then was roundly criticized for being a mental pushover. His mistake? Telling it like it was (and is).

It wasn't much different 30 years ago.

"(Jack) Nicklaus was a lot like Tiger today," Lee Trevino said Monday night. "He set the bar so high, we went into a golf tournament thinking if we could beat Jack, we'd have a great chance to win."

That's what Trevino did at Muirfield in 1972 - barely.

He had a one-stroke lead over Tony Jacklin going into the last round of the British Open and was six strokes clear of Nicklaus, who was going for the third leg of the Grand Slam.

Trevino knew Nicklaus was capable of a Sunday charge, and said to Jacklin on the first tee, "He can catch one of us, but not both of us."

Trevino chipped in for par on the 17th hole for a one-stroke victory over Nicklaus, denying him a shot at the slam.

Els knows what Woods is capable of this week at Muirfield.

"He's going for the Grand Slam," he said. "You know he's going to be in contention this week. You can beat the field by a couple of shots, but you might not beat Tiger at the end of the day. It seems like he's there every time.

"Even if he's not playing very well, he's still going to be there. If he's only five behind, there's always the feeling he can get something going."

That's why Woods already has won eight major championships, and why Els is stuck on two, none since the '97 U.S. Open at Congressional.

Els had hopes of winning them all back then. Sure, Woods had won the Masters that year by 12 strokes in his first major as a pro, but no one was sure what to expect.

"I felt very comfortable I would win all four (majors) at least once," Els said. "It's still a goal of mine, but it's changed a little bit now. Before '97, it was looking pretty good because Tiger wasn't around then.

"It's going to be a lot more difficult than I thought."

At least he has his two.

"This guy is just a totally different talent than the world has ever seen. In a way, I'm kind of glad I'm playing in this era. And in another way," Els said with an easy grin, "I'm unhappy I'm playing in this era."

The truth can hurt.