- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland A month ago at Pebble Beach, Ernie Els stood somberly outside the press tent after answering an hour's worth of questions about U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods.
"I don't want to ever have to do that again," said Els, a rare note of intensity in his voice.
Like most of his fellow professionals, Els has tremendous respect for Woods and was unquestionably awed by his 15-stroke victory at Pebble. But he also was slightly embarrassed by the situation for himself and his stablemates embarrassed to have been a helpless bystander at the most devastating rout in major championship history. This week the 30-year-old South African is determined to be more than just a non-competing marker for another Woods walkover.
"If he beats me by 15 from now, there should be an inquiry," Els said Thursday after posting an opening 66 to take a one-stroke lead over Woods and Steve Flesch at the 129th British Open. "There are quite a few players that can step up and be [Woods'] rival or whatever you want to call it… . I just want to go out there and play as good as I can. And when I play good enough, I'm probably going to play with him. So let's leave it at that."
Thursday morning, Els watched from his bedroom TV as Woods turned the warm, windless conditions at St. Andrews into a bogey-free 67. Els then came out in the afternoon and symbolically picked up the gauntlet Tiger tossed down. His eight-birdie round reached an impressive crescendo at the treacherous Road Hole, which played to a gory stroke average of 4.8.
Els came to the 17th 5-under, hit a brilliant cut drive into the heart of the fairway and then shaped a 6-iron from 184 yards within six feet of the flag. He then coasted home the putt to card one of only four 17th-hole birdies for the day and vault to the top of the leader board.
"[The approach] at No. 17 must be the shot of the day because you can make any number there; walking off with a three and getting the lead, it is very satisfying," said Els, who rolled into the Open off a victory at last week's Loch Lomond World Invitational. "I've worked pretty hard with [swing guru] David Leadbetter since the Masters. I've worked on my mental attitude on the course almost as much as my swing, really, just trying to get the timing ready for these big ones… . And I feel my game is finally coming around."
The two-time U.S. Open champion (1994 and '97) likely will have to stay in top form to keep pace with Woods this week. Though the 24-year-old terror was pleased with his first-round score, he was somewhat disappointed in his ball-striking, particularly his approach shots. Woods hit 17 greens and didn't find a bunker all day, but three of his birdies were of the two-putt variety, and he made the only other two birdie bids he earned from inside 15 feet.
"It's a major championship, and anything in the red is a good score," said Woods, who is attempting to become the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam. "I drove it pretty good and gave myself iron shots to give myself a chance [to make birdies]. But I did not really hit those approach shots as well as I'd like.
"I hit a poor shot on No. 1 into the green, a poor shot on No. 2 into the green, a poor shot on No. 3 into the green, a poor shot on No. 4 into the green, a poor shot on No. 5, a bad tee shot on No. 6 and a bad second shot on No. 6. You want me to go on? It was all day."
Like Ben Hogan before him, who once said he averaged only one or two perfect shots a round, Woods has a higher set of standards and expectations than the rest of the world's players. Considering the perfect early-morning conditions, Woods knows his 67 could have been much, much better if he had hit his approaches more precisely.
"I did not really have a whole lot of opportunities," Woods said. "But you can do that out here you can hit average shots, and the next thing you know you're 40, 50 feet away. It's just because the ball rolls and it gets the wrong side of a mound and there it goes."
Three years ago, Woods got himself in trouble when he claimed to have won the Byron Nelson Classic with his "C game." But it's difficult to quibble with reality. Frighteningly for the field, Woods beat all but two of the world's top players yesterday with the equivalent of his "B game."
Fortunately for Els and Co., Woods has a late tee time this afternoon. Even if Thursday's placid conditions persist conditions that allowed 50 players to break par on the 7,155-yard, par-72 layout Woods will face a far tougher Old Course this afternoon than he saw Thursday. By the time Woods reaches the first tee at 2:30 (British time), the greens likely will be dried out, crusty and spike-marked and the fairways even faster.
"For once I got fortunate with my draw," said Els, who tees off five hours ahead of Woods. "Hopefully, it will stay nice and calm, and I'll get the chance to go out there and put up a number that everybody else will have to look at all day."
For the determined Els, "everybody else" is named Tiger Woods.

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