There have always been times when individuals have dominated the game. Times when it seemed that particular players were unbeatable and when the key question concerned who would take the runners-up spot. Indeed, since Willie Park and Tom Morris contested the earliest Open Championships in the 1860's there have been pacesetters in the game.
There have also, of course, been lulls when the book was truly open and any Tom, Dick or Harry could take the laurels. But these times have not been many and the course of golf history is a direct route through a succession of great champions that have stamped their superiority over their peers. Each, however, has had a rival to spur him on to greater and ever greater things.
Park had Morris, Vardon had Taylor and Braid, Hagen had Jones, Snead had Hogan, Palmer had Player, Nicklaus had Watson and so it goes. Now, Woods has Els and, as the Americans say, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Certainly nothing in the history of the game compares with what we are witnessing today. After a lay-off for knee surgery, Woods returned to the fray with a convincing win in California executing recovery shots the like of which even Ballesteros never conceived of in his heyday. Meanwhile in Western Australia, Els continued a run of success that has propelled him into the record books, and to which he added with a new European Tour record of 259, the lowest score for four rounds of golf in tournament history.
Having already collected the US Tour record with his 31 under par in Hawaii in January, Els should be considered the dominant force in world golf. Having won five of the six events he has played in this year and being stunningly 100 under par for his efforts, he would rank as the number one player in the solar system were it not for the existence of Tiger Woods. One would certainly understand if Els felt antipathy for Woods but it is surely inconceivable, given his record, that he feels intimidated by him.
Els appears to have overcome some psychological hurdle in recent months, a hurdle composed entirely of Tiger Woods. This is hard to believe but it is put about that the diminutive Belgian sports shrink M. Jos Vanstiphout has put Els' head in order and he is now ready to take on the world - including Woods. Understandably, the Belgian shrink, who is said to have achieved some remarkable things with certain European Tour players, claims his turning around of Els is his greatest success to date.
The story is that Els, having been runner-up in three majors, was so scared of the Tiger in 2000 that he became convinced that no matter what he did, no matter how well he played he could not beat him. The Big Easy had become the Big Angst. He won nothing in 2001 and Ernie concurred when Vanstiphout put it to him that he needed his head put back together. This has apparently been done and Els is on a perpetual home run. It is perhaps disturbing that no mention is made of the fact that Els is now driving longer and straighter than he has ever done and that Titleist technology is in no small part responsible for his competitive edge.
What technological advantages Woods had in the past are gone, with Els having also now got the same spec in the bag and surely that alone must be the best possible medicine for Els' head.
The playing field may now be level but the problem that the pair pose for the governing bodies of the game are exacerbated. The new drivers in combination with the advanced ProV1x ball coupled with musculature, hitherto unseen in golf, is reducing even the longest courses to drive, chip and putt municipal style venues. Els' drives in Perth were averaging 314 yards and his longest was 376. Even Woods did not approach that in California but many others did and thereby hangs the problem.
The pros themselves are calling for greater legislative control of clubs and balls for fear that the tournament circuit will become at best a two horse race not unlike Formula 1 racing - and there are many parallels. But one can understand the R&A and USGA taking up an ostrich pose with head in the sand for law suits would certainly follow any restrictions imposed upon the manufacturers. It is generally held that the technological limits have been reached but that has been said for as long as even the greyest of beards can remember. As long as the challenge is there and there is a buck to be made innovation will persist. It has always been this way and always will.
Everyone will surely relish the long hitting contest in the offing when Els and Woods meet in competition for the first time this year. Els is currently hitting more fairways in regulation but Woods' recovery play was outstanding to the extent of miraculous in his first outing this year.
The WGC-Accenture Matchplay could prove to be a real showdown if the sponsors have the foresight to put the two in different halves of the draw and each came through to contest the final. It could be a momentous event, indeed, it could become an historic meeting.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SGU or ScottishGolf.
|| 19 - FEBRUARY 2003