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Who Els?
With the Dunhill Links Championship and the World Matchplay still to play, both with prize funds of a size to match the GNP of third world countries, Ernie Els has broken the Euro Tour income record set by Lee Westwood in 2000 pocketing £1.74 million for his year's efforts in Europe. Els has also demoted Tiger Woods to third place in the world rankings and, should he continue in his winning ways over the next three weeks, he will topple Vijay Singh from the top spot.

Singh merits the top spot. His play has been that of a master all year, but his dislodging Tiger at the top has obscured Els' background achievements. The mammoth South African has missed-out on three of the Majors this year by only one shot on each occasion. Three miserable tap-ins have excluded Els from matching Woods' Majors record, despite the fact that Els was four shots better in total.

The disappointments of the year have clearly taken a toll on Els, who is aptly named the 'Big Easy'. His casual demeanour has hidden his anguish and he has confessed to being distressed by events - but he chose the right time and place to re-stamp his authority. Mount Juliet in Kilkenny in the south east of Ireland, near wet Waterford and even damper Wexford, is not the most inspiring of golfing venues even in the most clement weather. In bad weather it is miserable and the weather that the best players in the world had to play through in the last round of the American Express so-called World Championship, surpassed even the most pessimistic expectations. Els cannot be familiar with rain at this temperature and volume, nor with the misery of the experience. Although Mark Hensby got round in an astonishing 65, the sub-70 scores of the earlier rounds were washed away on Sunday. Michael Campbell returned a sodden 80 while Charles Howell III, Robert Allenby and Freddie Couples must have regretted leaving Fred Funk to lift the pot at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic at Madison as they squelched through to return cards in the high seventies. It speaks volumes for Woods' determination that he survived the downpour and a nagging back to take sixth place with a final round 70.

Although it is refreshing and certainly good for the game to see Els back in winning mode, it is depressing to watch Woods struggle with his form. Although he repeatedly and determinedly announces that he is 'just a touch away from his best game', the evidence is that he is not and, furthermore, that he is not getting there. Tiger needed only 25 putts on the rain sodden greens on Sunday and he took only 110 putts through the four rounds. As far as putting goes, these are winning statistics. Clearly, Woods' problem is in getting to the dance floor and his driving statistics reflect this. Although infirmed and playing in unhappy conditions, the Tiger hit only 30 out of 56 fairways over the four rounds. 53% driving accuracy is only marginally worse than his 57% for the year and clearly elucidates his fall from pole podium place. The Tiger will return to his winning ways but not before he sorts out his costly problem off the tee.

Tiger Woods, by the fantastic standards that he set in 2000-2001 is in a slump and his broad, warm smile must mask an underlying disappointment, if not anxiety with his game. But what Tiger is experiencing is as nothing compared to the distress from which Thomas Bjorn has, thankfully, emerged. The mental demons that escorted Bjorn from the European Open earlier this year have been dispelled and, like Els, he chose the right time and place to prove himself. He must have gained hugely in confidence from his final round 68, one shot better than Els but not enough to recover his third round two-shot deficit.

A confident Bjorn and a threatened Singh, as well as the Mount Juliet leaderboard studded with in-form Europeans and the mighty Goosen, will not impart complacency to Els as he makes his way up to Fife this week. The Dunhill is the biggest pro-pot in European golf and it is probably the most demanding. As well as having to combat Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and the Old Course at St Andrews, the pro player has to carry an amateur indulgent for all four days. It is a burden that will be all the heavier if it is cold and wet and will be an agony if he has to look for balls in wet rough in a bitter gale.

Why, oh why are these great events held at this time of the year in these northern climes?

©    4 - OCTOBER 2004

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