Bunker Mentality

Tiger and Ernie: The rivalry that never was

Bunker Mentality

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Watching Ernie Els win his first tournament on US soil for two years was a treat for all golf fans - but then watching the Big Easy play golf is a treat at any time.

Just watching the man hit a golf ball is a wonderful sight. Els's swing tempo has always been smoother than a baby's bottom coated in Teflon, his extraordinary short game a constant marvel, and his mid-range putting - at its best - the greatest ever seen in the game.

But it's that languid swing that is the highlight. Nobody in the recent history of the game - with the possible exception of Fred Couples - has made the simple act of hitting a golf ball look more gloriously simple.

Yes, Tiger is a better golfer - but only because he is a fiercer competitor, not because he is better at hitting a golf ball.

If Woods and Els were painters, Woods would be Picasso while Els would be Monet. If they were cars then Woods would be a V12 dragster, while Els would be a Bentley.

Sadly, though, if they were footballers then Woods would be Maradona while Els would be George Best. Tiger might have his problems; but Ernie, despite his genius and his three Major victories, has always carried with him the spectre of wasted potential.

The Big Easy's record puts him up there with multiple Major champions like Nick Price; but with the talent he had, he should have been mentioned in the same breath as men such as Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson or his fellow South African Gary Player.

The Woods v Els rivalry should have been one for the ages, a tussle to match Jack Nicklaus v Arnold Palmer or Nick Faldo v Greg Norman. It should have lasted a decade or more, contained numerous head-to-head battles, and seen both players rack up cabinets full of Major trophies.

Instead, Woods has had things largely his own way.

So why didn't the great rivalry happen? It would be an insult to Els to say that he doesn't want success just as much as Woods - his on-the-record statements show that he clearly does - but equally it's hard to deny that the reason he hasn't done even better is due to a lack of mental edge.

It's probably because Ernie Els is just too nice for his own good. You never hear a bad word said about the man, from fellow competitors, press or fans, and perhaps it's that niceness which has stopped him from being able to turn the screw on people like Woods.

Where Tiger has won Majors even when not at the top of his game, Els has managed to lose them when he should have finished miles clear.

He has finished in the top six at Majors an astonishing 23 times yet only won three - and all of those came either after play-offs, or chokes from other players, or both.

Woods, by contrast, has converted 28 top six finishes into 14 Major championship wins. Faldo, by way of comparison, had 20 top sixes and finished the job six times. Seve had 16 top sixes and won five Majors.

What else do you need to say?

It's a crying shame. With a bit more edge, a bit more nastiness, and a willingness to swagger and intimidate his opponents a bit more instead of allowing them to feel comfortable, then Els could have genuinely rivalled Woods for the last 15 years.

Now, though, at the age of 40, and with his nemesis rocked by trouble in his personal life, is there still time for Ernie to come good and finally start filling his trophy cabinet with the game's most sought-after trophies? BM, for one, desperately hopes so.

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Speculation about Tiger Woods making his return has reached fever pitch, with it looking more and more likely that he will tune up at the Tavistock Cup exhibition match ahead of a US PGA Tour return at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill (as predicted by Bunker Mentality several weeks ago).

But the next definite non-golfing appearance by the world number one has been confirmed: Woods is to be featured in an episode of South Park, where series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are reportedly to lampoon his apology for cheating on his wife.

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Quote of the week: "Makes dinner taste better tonight" - Ian Poulter after shooting a 64 in the final round of the WGC-CA Championship to climb up to 37th, and still making it home in time to catch the Orlando Magic's NBA game.

Surprise of the week: It's no surprise that there were five Europeans in the top 10 in Florida at the weekend, but it was a big surprise that they did not include Rory McIlroy, Oliver Wilson or Miguel Angel Jimenez, all of whom have been in great form. Instead, the five players flying the Euro flag were Padraig Harrington, Martin Kaymer, Paul Casey, Graeme McDowell and Alvaro Quiros.

Stat of the week: Australia's Robert Allenby recorded a hole-in-one (see video below), an eagle on a par-4 and an eagle on a par-5 during the course of the week in Miami. Only six other players have managed that feat since 1983: Pat McGowan, Blaine McCallister, Gary Koch, Jesper Parnevik, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler. None of them won the tournaments they were playing during the week.

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Shot of the week (other than Allenby's ace): The Blue Monster course at Doral, venue of the WGC-CA Championship, is one of the toughest courses on the US Tour, and the 18th is its toughest hole - but not if you're Bill Haas:

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