- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2000

Ernie Els watches casually as you go through your pre-shot routine.

You take two practice swings, rushing a bit, and manage to address the ball before reality drops an E-Z-GO on you.

It's not 3 a.m. This is no dream. You're not playing Augusta National in a T-shirt and boxer shorts with Els and Tiger. A bikini-clad Claudia Schiffer isn't about to arrive in a drink cart chauffeured by Augusta National general chairman Hootie Johnson, wearing only overalls under his green coat.

Nope, this is real.

You're at Els' new course Whiskey Creek Golf Club in Urbana, Md. It's media day, and you've been paired with Ernie, invited to embarrass yourself over 18 holes with the game's sweetest swinger.

"Beauty, man," says Els, and you realize he's talking about your first drive, which you've somehow managed to dead-center.

Els' caddie, an Irishman named Neil Wallace, asks you if Ernie can borrow your cell phone. Still posing over the drive and replaying Ernie's praise, you hand Wallace your wallet.

You've taken three steps off the tee before the words "cell phone" register. You fish a phone out of your back pocket and turn back to Wallace. He's got your wallet extended, and he's wearing a smirk that tells you he's seen more than one moron in a star-struck haze.

Thank God that Ernie hasn't seen this exchange he's up ahead in the fairway eyeballing his approach, waiting for his clubs and your phone.

You have outdriven the world's ninth-ranked golfer by about five yards, though it was his first swing of the day; you've hit an hour's worth of range balls. He has 142, slightly uphill, a touch of wind against, to the back pin position. Els hits a smooth 9-iron pin-high, just to the left of the flagstick.

You can feel your legs now but your mind is still numb, so you follow with a 9-iron of your own. It's not enough club, and you catch it a touch fat, as well, leaving yourself a 50-foot putt from Hagerstown.

You manage to two-putt, while Ernie charges his birdie bid six feet by and misses coming back. That's a bogey for the 30-year-old two-time U.S. Open champion from Johannesburg, South Africa; a par for the chop from Chattanooga, Tenn. You write the scores smugly on the scorecard as Els rolls his eyes at your phone against his ear and helplessly tries to convince some flack at TPC at Avenel that he "really is Ernie Els." You wonder if there's a market on E-Bay for a cell phone once used by a two-time U.S. Open champion.

At the next hole, he rams home a 15-footer for birdie (topping your par), and you are struck by the first of three revelations for the day: Els, like most great players, is not a lag putter. When they're not putting on glass-like Tour greens, these guys have the confidence to charge the hole. Every putt he doesn't make runs three to five feet past the hole; he misses only two comebackers all day.

By the time you reach the fourth teebox, Els has sorted out his Kemper Open pro-am tee time and hands you back your phone. You crush a 270-yard drive at the 558-yard, par-5. Els follows with a 285-yard heel hit.

"Did you hit that in the heel?" you ask.

"Yeah, man, that was just a terrible swing, but this club is pretty forgiving."

You resist the urge to prostrate yourself, and instead digest a second revelation: The first hole, where you outdrove Els, was a total fluke. There is absolutely no parallel between your length and his. You will never again be deluded by Els' PGA Tour driving distance stats (274.0 yards).

Those statistics are compiled on Tour setups with tight fairways and sadistic stands of rough conditions that compel Els and other longer-hitting pros to hit irons and 3-woods on some holes and gear back with their drivers on others. On a relatively open course like Whiskey Creek, Els can swing away, resulting in an average drive that by day's end you estimate at approximately 320 yards, some 60 yards past your average effort.

Els practically maims the cup with a 35-foot birdie bomb at the fourth, and you two-putt for another par. Els is now 1-under; you are still puttering away at even-par. There will be no more snickering at the scorecard.

In the seventh fairway, the subject of Tiger Woods comes up. It is three weeks before Els will finish 15 strokes behind Woods at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but the Big Easy is already awed by Woods' play:

"How confident do you have to be to change balls midway through the season?" asks Els rhetorically, commenting on Woods' decision to switch from a Titleist wound ball to a Nike two-piece ball. "Those things feel totally different, and yet the guy immediately adjusts. He finishes second in Europe and then wins last week at the Memorial (Dublin, Ohio). That's amazing, man. The guy could play with a gutta percha."

After watching Els birdie the 545-yard, ninth hole with a driver, a 7-iron and two putts, you realize Els probably could play with a cueball.

The back nine passes quickly between the Budweisers and the banter. You now feel like you're buddies with the Big Easy, who really does deserve his reputation as one of golf's most good-natured Goliaths. You ask who his favorite playing partners on Tour are, and his least favorite. The latter group is not for publication, but he's cool enough to name them anyway.

He shocks you once, hitting an impossibly high hook with a 7-iron from a waist-high lie at the 12th. No amateur would even attempt to execute the awkward shot with a full swing; he stuffs it to 10 feet.

You shock him once from a bunker at the par-5, 15th, flipping a sand shot 40 yards over two bunkers and landing it just on the fringe, so that it trickles within 30 inches of the cup.

"That was unbelievable," says Els, applauding as you trudge up the slope to the green. "That was just a perfect play. You should have been up here to see it."

You shock him again when you totally yank your birdie putt.

As you walk off the 18th green with a 76, six strokes worse than Els, who gives away three strokes and still effortlessly reaches 2-under, you do your best not to sound like a sycophant, telling Ernie truthfully how much you think of his first foray into the architectural world. Els responds with a handshake and a polite lie, calling you a "serious player."

But playing 18 with Ernie has pounded home through juxtaposition what you already knew: There are very few truly serious players in the world. And the gap between the average addicted amateur and a two-time major champion is far greater than six strokes might imply.

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