But for all his athletic gifts and with a sincere concession to the riches golf brought to him, Els concedes that on many days, his power and might weren’t enough to beat Tiger Woods.
“He kicked my ass for about 15 years,” Els said.
There wasn’t a hint of bitterness, either, for Els at 45 has reached that point in his life when he can take stock of his career and the assessment leaves him satisfied. There have been major championships won, massive fortunes accumulated, world-wide adulation earned — and, yes, on those occasions that were too rare for Els’ liking, the stars aligned and he can say he outclassed Woods.
“I take great pride in that,” Els said.
For good reason, too. While the annals of golf history properly pay homage to those who established uncanny standards in their times — Harry Vardon and Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus — it’s hard to argue that Woods isn’t the most dominant player in the game’s history. His return to the 2015 Masters probably won’t rekindle memories of past glory, nor does it appear likely that he’ll surpass Nicklaus for the most major championship wins, but no matter; it’s how Woods overwhelmed his competition time and time and time again, a manner that wasn’t Nicklaus’s style, that gives him the edge.
No one could testify to this more than Els, who in 2000 might have won both the US Open and Open Championship had Eldrick “Tiger” Woods decided at an earlier age to stick with football or running, sports in which he also participated. Instead, second-place finishes never seemed so meaningless, 15 behind that he was at Pebble Beach and eight astray that he was left at the Old Course. Famously, when advised by golf writers that Woods had surpassed a record previously held by Old Tom Morris, Els feigned indignation. “Old Tom Morris?” he said. “If you put Old Tom Morris with Tiger, (Woods) would probably beat him by 80 shots right now.”
Funny stuff, but Els’ point was spot on. Forget comparing Woods to anyone; the man was a true phenomenon, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That he was in his prime at the same as Woods was not lost on Els, but never did he consider it an unfortunate break and he insists he hasn’t spent any time wondering how many more majors he might have won if not for Woods. Els thumps his chest with pride, knowing he won four majors in the Woods era, and Phil Mickelson would surely do similarly, given that he has won five. Vijay Singh won three, Davis Love one, David Duval one, and Colin Montgomerie zero. In one man’s opinion, these were the six best players of the 1997-2008 time period and each would have accomplished significantly more had Woods not stolen so much of their thunder, so many of their opportunities.
(For instance, these six combined for three World Golf Championship wins. Woods owns 18).
But did they fear Woods? Never. Back down from the Woods challenge? Certainly not. Deep down, though, they knew that Woods’ best was an insurmountable obstacle and it had to seep into their psyche and be demoralising. Whether they concede it or not — and Els does — each of them was “scarred” by Woods and his incomparable persona.
As to when this aura started to fade, Pete Cowen is adamant that it has nothing to do with a fire hydrant, but everything to do with a player named YE Yang. Cowen, the game’s most unheralded great swing coach, doesn’t think the personal-life meltdown in the winter of 2009 and the spring of 2010 led to Woods’ fall from power; instead, he considers the way in which Woods squandered the 2009 PGA Championship to an unknown entity from Seoul, a player ranked 110th in the world.
“YE Yang beat him with a bloody lady’s rescue club. A hybrid,” Cowen said. “All of a sudden, (it was) a Buster Douglas moment.”
Just as Mike Tyson was never the same after Douglas’ stunner in Tokyo, Woods has not won a major since that shocker at Hazeltine. Thus, Cowen’s theory: “Guys started saying, ‘If Yang can do that, why can’t we? That was what opened the door. The invincibility goes.”
Cowen shrugged and offered a fresh coat of perspective about the 39-year-old Woods. “If there’s one thing that makes everybody look ordinary, it’s age, and you can’t do anything about that.”
Whereas at first the European Tour veterans charged through the door to win majors – Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke – the flood of stars seizing control of the golf stage these days are veterans who have bloomed late (Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson, Jimmy Walker) and younger players with power and savvy (Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler).
McIlroy, of course, stands above them all, what with his four major championships and bid to complete the career Grand Slam. But what McIlroy shares with the others is this: “They aren’t battle-scarred by Woods,” swing coach Butch Harmon said.
The reference point is well-grounded. Each of them respects Woods’ iconic resume, but there is no history of failure against Woods. No nightmarish memories of playing well, only to finish six behind him. No Masters ’97 (Woods won by 12), US Open ’00 (Woods won by 15), or Open Championship ’00 (Woods won by 8) sticks in their memory banks.
In a rare moment of honest reflection by Woods that serves to support this notion, he stopped during a pro-am at the 2010 Target World Championship, an unofficial end-of-year tournament he hosts, Woods turned and watched Dustin Johnson hit a missile of a tee shot, then sighed in resignation.
“I can’t do that,” he said of Johnson’s athleticism, and true as it was, the other half of that equation is this – a healthy line of young and talented players can do what Johnson can do and what Woods cannot.