Els has been exceedingly gracious toward Maggert but not altogether sympathetic. "What the hell, you can't stand out on a golf course and feel sorry for anybody," Els says. "So be it if they finish second again. That's life. It's something they've got to live with."
There has been much heavy breathing about the physical gifts of the 6'3", 210-pound Els since his breakthrough victory at the '94 U.S. Open at Oakmont, outside Pittsburgh, but he is rarely appreciated for his skills from the neck up. He is one of the few players who has the mental toughness to excel in one-on-one confrontations. Els is the only player to win three straight World Match Play Championships, and he was a standout in the '96 Presidents Cup with a 3-1-1 record. Says Steve Elkington, his teammate at Lake Manassas, Va., "Ernie may look laid-back and easygoing and all those ways he's usually described, but I wouldn't have wanted to take him on in a fistfight before those matches. He likes that stuff."
Els has a strong athletic background. He was an accomplished junior tennis player until he chose, at 14, to concentrate on golf. He also played rugby and cricket while growing up, and he still enjoys a pickup cricket match. In years past he regularly organized a cutthroat match with players and caddies on the beach in Jamaica during the Johnny Walker World Championship.
Although Els skipped college to turn pro at 19, he has a masterly ability to think his way around a course, whether he is lurking in the shadows, only to make a charge on the final day, as was the case at the Open at Congressional, or executing an aggressive game plan from the outset, as he did at Westchester, where all week he attacked the course's vulnerable holes and prudently played for par on the brutes. "My patience and my ability to stick to a plan have been the real key the past two weeks," said Els.
So too has his otherworldly talent. Why do we love Els's game? Let us count the ways, with some help from Frank Nobilo, who calls Els his closest friend on Tour and who recently bought a house at Lake Nona in Orlando that's 350 yards from his buddy's. "The scary thing about Ernie is that he's not playing out of his mind right now," says Nobilo. "This is the kind of player he is. He has no weakness. Other guys might be higher up in the driving stats, but Ernie has more power in reserve than any of them. He's the best player in the world out of the rough, in the same class as Seve [Ballesteros] when he was in his prime. He can hit his irons as high and soft or low and penetrating as he wants. He's a magnificent bunker player. You know, growing up Ernie was skinny and weak, and as a result he really focused on his short game. You can see the evidence when he's around the green and especially when he's putting."
That said, the most impressive thing about Els may be his desire, which has been palpable the past two weeks. "He wants to be a player of historic importance," says Elkington. "I know that because he has told me. He covets the big four [the major championships]."
In an era when so many of the game's elite players flinch when faced with the demands and pressures of being on top, Els's attitude seems to be: Bring it on. Asked on Sunday if he was the best player in the world, Els said, "Right now, at this time, I would have to say so, yes."
Els looks ready for a long stay at No. 1, especially when you compare him with the guy he bumped, Woods, who lasted one week. Els has no interest in being a celebrity and sees no point in filling up a bank with tens of millions of endorsement dollars that he can't spend but that must be repaid with numbing commitments of time.
"My life's not going to change because I won the U.S. Open," he says. "It didn't change after the last one. I'm going to stay in the same house in Orlando and the same house in South Africa. I'm going to stay with the same companies. Lots of guys have a great year and then they change everything, and they do it just for the money. That's how you get into trouble. I've got enough money to keep me happy for the rest of my life. What more do I need?"
Els is so committed to putting his putting stroke ahead of his portfolio that he is already making plans to sharply reduce his playing schedule next season, despite the huge appearance fees that are available to him. This is a radical departure from the course taken by many Grand Slam champions, who chase the buck so far that they seem to lose their games along the way. Els values privacy and simplicity above all else. At Westchester he played in relative obscurity as mobs of fans flocked to Woods each day, trampling one another and golf etiquette with equal gusto. "I didn't mind that at all," Els said of his light galleries. "I'm getting enough attention. I don't want any more."