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The beginning or the end
Should Ernie Els prove a credible threat to Tiger Woods in the weeks to come, golf will enter a Golden Era. Should the threat to Tiger's supremacy be unfounded, the game will surely slip into the abyss.

Els is certainly in a vein of form good enough to threaten the Tiger although the latter has not been tested sufficiently this year. The old Riviera Course this week proved less receptive to Tigers miraculous recoveries than the modern courses on which Woods is masterful. This old, quirky course was much less forgiving of missed fairways and more rewarding of the perfectly placed tee-shot. Tiger returned a last round 66 to come from 11 shots behind the leader to within three shots of a play-off. But it took him three rounds to get it right. Overall, Tiger played feebly; indeed, it is 26 tournaments since he was this toothless.

Woods is now playing with a Nike driver, an implement that is not exactly streaming out of the pros' shops. His driving is erratic and when it is at its worst, it is costly. He took seven shots at the opening par five in the third round; a hole that two thirds of the field birdied. In the first three rounds he hit only 22 fairways out of 42. Not good. He improved on this ratio in the last round but he was still far from bisecting the fairways. Following his first round 72 - in which he had 34 putts - he took only 26 putts in his second round 68. Yet in front of the TV cameras he claimed to have driven the ball better in the second round when he himself must have known that the difference was in the putts holed.

Both Charlie Howell and Mike Weir are among the 178 players on the US Tour who can routinely hit the ball over 300 yards. Both, however, are distinguished by the frequency with which they hit the fairway and by the infrequency with which they have less than 30 putts in a round. Howell is the longest and straightest driver on the US Tour with a driving action of great beauty. The Canadian Weir is not far behind him but somewhat ahead of him in the putting stakes. That Weir triumphed in the play-off at Riviera came as no surprise, for a shoot-out usually comes down to putts.

Putting will be even more of a governing factor at the La Costa course when the 5th playing of the Accenture World Matchplay Championship is resolved. The La Costa resort course epitomises modern American golf with its long, lush, wide fairways and absolutely receptive greens. As such, it is the perfect venue for Woods and it should provide for some spectacular shot-making golf. It may also decide the future of the game should the Tiger prevail.

Matchplay golf is, however, an altogether different game from strokeplay where one bad round can be salvaged by a good one. In matchplay, one bad round directs you to the exit from the tournament.

There are few omissions from the worlds top sixty players lining up at La Costa and given the recent consistency of Ernie Els he should be favourite to win the event. The fact that he is not speaks volumes about the awe in which Tiger Woods is held in the game worldwide.

As scripted by Sergio Leone with Hollywood input, La Costa should be the scene of the ultimate showdown between Els and Woods. The two should progressively come to face one another through five rounds, leaving the crushed and crumpled in their wake, until they are left in face-to-face confrontation on the first tee on Sunday. Sadly, it is not likely. For some relative foozler will bring one of them down with a one-off display of craft and guile, and a putting stroke lent by the Gods of the Green for the day.

Minnows eat other minnows and get quickly fat on the fare. The emergence of Els as a creditable threat must have given food for thought to the likes of Beam and Howell in the States, as well as a host of Europeans who were not impressed with Tigers performance at the Belfry.

At long last Woods has a significant challenger in Els and that fact alone will have given scope for hope in the lesser lights. Although generally accused of sour grapes, Jack Nicklaus was right three years ago when he said that Woods was not being significantly challenged.

Els may now have found the necessary self-belief to realise his full potential and challenge Woods' supremacy. If he has, he could propel the game into a new Golden Age. If, however, the Tiger should also turn to a shrink capable of releasing more might, then Els and the minnows will simply have to keep swimming around him or go off and find smaller ponds to be big fish in.

La Costa may come to be the scene of the dawning of a new Golden Age in the game, or it could be the brink from which it toppled into the abyss. It all depends upon Tiger Woods.

©    25 - FEBRUARY 2003

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