GOLF

Els off to furious start


Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 1:02 a.m.

HONOLULU - When his ball disappeared into the hole after its 55-foot journey across the green, Ernie Els used what energy he had left to smile and remove his cap, an exhausting end to a remarkable two weeks in Hawaii.

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Ernie ELs outlasted 21-year-old Australian Aaron Baddeley in a playoff on Sunday to win the Sony Open in Honolulu.

The Associated Press

Facts

Ernie's early success

A look at Ernie Els' stats through the first two tournaments:
SCORING AVERAGE (RANK): 67.66 (4)
DRIVING DISTANCE: 319.6 (1)
GREENS IN REGULATION: 84.7% (7)
PUTTING AVERAGE: 1.648 (8)
BIRDIE AVERAGE: 6.13 (1)
SAND SAVE: 85.7% (tie 8)

Perhaps this is only the start.

``When you're winning golf tournaments, you like to think you're on top of the world,'' Els said after his stunning playoff victory over Aaron Baddeley in the Sony Open. ``But I feel like I could still improve.''

Hours later, the Big Easy boarded his plane Sunday night with caddie Ricci Roberts and headed for the Singapore Masters. After that, he plays twice in Australia before returning to the PGA Tour in late February for the Match Play Championship.

``I could easily relax for another week or two here in Hawaii,'' he said. ``But we've got to do what we've got to do. It will be a nice flight, just me and Ricci. We'll have a couple of beers, talk about it. Then we'll start again Thursday.''

They had plenty to talk about.

Els became the first player since Steve Jones in 1989 to win the PGA Tour's first two tournaments of the year, and the first to win both Hawaii events in the same season.

Even more impressive is how he did it.

One week, Els overpowered Kapalua and a winners-only field at the Mercedes Championships to win by eight strokes with a record 31 under par.

The next week on a Waialae course that emphasized accuracy over strength, Els slugged it out with a 21-year-old Aussie in a final round that covered 20 tense holes and left no room for error.

``This is what it's all about, isn't it?'' Els said. ``This is why you practice, why you spend hours on the range, for this kind of situation, where it's really tight and no one wants to give up anything. You have to just try to find a way to win.''

The script was familiar to Els, just not the ending.

He figured he was beaten when his drive on the second playoff hole, the 353-yard 10th at Waialae Country Club, sailed 40 yards left of the green. That left him an uphill pitch to a green that ran away from him, and it stopped rolling 55 feet away.

Baddeley drove into a greenside bunker, and at that point, Els thought he would be lucky to get to the next hole.

Els' chip ran through the green to the fringe, on a similar path from when he drove the 10th green in regulation. Els knew the line, but he also knew the odds.

``I was trying to make it, but from 55 feet, what's your chances, really?'' he said. ``Hit the best putt you can and hope for the best. I could put 100 balls down there and not make that putt again.''

That's what everyone said about the 40-foot putt Tiger Woods had at Kapalua three years ago, when he beat Els in a dramatic playoff.

That's that they said about the 70-foot putt Paul Lawrie made from the ``Valley of Sin'' on the 18th at St. Andrews when he beat Els by one stroke in the Dunhill Links Championship two years ago on the European tour.

``I don't think he was supposed to hole that putt,'' Baddeley said. ``I wasn't expecting him to, anyway. That was a heck of a putt.''

For Els, it simply was a matter of time.

``It's just a crazy game,'' he said. ``So many times it has happened to me. It kind of worked the other way around this time. The wheels keep on turning, and eventually you will get your chance and it will work out for you.''

The question is whether they continue to turn, how fast and in what direction. To watch Els over two weeks in Hawaii was to see a three-time major champion in full flight.

Woods often gets asked if he's close to his form from 2000, when he won nine times, three straight majors and shattered records.

Right now, Els might be closer to the form that Woods has been the last few years, although Woods is never far off. And what makes Woods the best player in the world is his ability to sustain great play throughout the year.

When Els returns from his trip around the world, Woods likely will have returned from knee surgery.

``I don't know what he's thinking. At the moment, I don't really care,'' Els said. ``He's obviously going to come back strong. He's a complete golfer. I'm sure he's chomping at the bit to get back here and start playing.

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