Thursday, April 10, 2003

Tiger faces rejuvenated challengers

Els vows to play his game, not Woods

By Phil Richards
The Indianapolis Star

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Ernie Els has a new grip, new clubs and a new adviser, but his recent resurgence owes to something else, something less intangible and more important. Els has a different mindset and a fresh approach, not to mention the British Open and four other titles won over the past nine months.

When: Today-Sunday.
Site: Augusta National Golf Club.
Par: 36-36-72.
Format: 72 holes of stroke play, sudden-death playoff if necessary.
Field: 93 players, inc. five amateurs.
Noteworthy: Because Augusta dropped its sponsors, the Masters will be the first commercial-free broadcast of a sporting event on network television.
TV schedule:
  Today and Friday, USA: 4-6:30 p.m.; 9-11:30 (replay)
  Saturday, CBS: 3:30-6:30 p.m.
  Sunday, CBS: 2:30-7 p.m.
"I think I went at it the wrong way," he said. "I played tournaments, I played majors, against Tiger. And let's face it: Tiger's going to be there. So if you start playing Tiger on Thursday from the first tee, I think that's the wrong way to go about it. I think you're going to beat yourself up and not play your normal game."

Tiger Woods will begin his quest for a third consecutive green jacket when the 67th Masters Tournament begins today at Augusta National Golf Club. Els plans to chase his golf ball, not Woods.

Els' obsession with the defending champion is understandable. In 2000, Els was the runner-up in the Masters, the British Open and the U.S. Open. Nice season. Woods finished 15 strokes ahead in the U.S. Open, eight clear in the British Open, then won the PGA Championship, in which Els tumbled to a tie for 34th.

Armed this season with a weaker grip, Titleist equipment and the biting admonitions of sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout, Els won four times and finished second twice in his first six stroke-play tournaments. He played that stretch 117 under par.

Els and Woods didn't play in the same event until late February, at the World Match Play Championship. Els lost his first-round match. Woods won the tournament.

They hooked up again at Bay Hill last month, where they were tied through two rounds. Playing with a jammed right wrist, Els shot 72-77 on the weekend to tie for 38th. Woods shot 66-68 to win.

Els withdrew from the Players Championship the next week. He returned home for repairs. He declares himself mended, rested and ready this week, when it really counts. He will have company when he sets out on what he hopes is a new path.

"I look at it as just a challenge for myself to try to play my best," said Phil Mickelson, 0-for-42 in major championships and back from a five-week break to be with his wife, Amy, for the birth of their third child, Evan Samuel. "As Bobby Jones used to say, he was always competing against 'Old Man Par.' "

So it goes.

Of course Woods himself is reciting the same lines. The difference is that he is consistently able to do what he says, whether he's beating Sergio Garcia in a PGA Championship shootout, winning the U.S. Open by 15 shots or watching all about him trip over their own mistakes and each other, as was the case at Augusta last year.

"Whoever is there on the back nine Sunday is there," said Woods. "That's the way I've looked at every tournament. You can't pick out a couple guys and say these are the guys I need to beat, because they may not be there.

"I need to get there myself."

Woods' disclaimer notwithstanding, last year's top 10 probably is a pretty good reading of who to look for Sunday. Retief Goosen was the runner-up. Mickelson was third, Els tied for fifth. Vijay Singh took seventh, a stroke ahead of Garcia.

With Augusta National measuring 7,290 yards but playing about 7,600 after three days of cold rain, with more to come, long hitters with deft short games are the best candidates. All the above qualify. All rank among the world's top 11.

So does Davis Love III, No. 3, who went to putter designer Scott Cameron last fall and came away with a new putter and a new stroke. Love is like Els: reborn. A winner only once in the past four seasons, Love has won twice in the last two months.

He's preaching the same gospel.

"I don't think Tiger looks at the board and worries about anybody else," he said. "It's best for us not to worry about him, or anybody but ourselves."

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Wednesday's high school results