Let's Settle the debate right now. The question we've all been wrestling with is this: Who's the best player in the world, David Duval or Tiger Woods? Based on what transpired during last week's Nissan (a.k.a. Los Angeles) Open at Riviera Country Club, the correct answer is neither.
The best in the world has to be Ernie Els, the 29-year-old two-time U.S. Open champion we forgot about because our attention span is shorter than the list of Next Michael Jordan candidates. While it's true that the World Ranking says Woods is still numero uno with Duval second, No. 4 Els's standout performance at Riviera—among a cast that featured more big guns than Saving Private Ryan—means that Big Easy, as the laid-back Els is known, is poised to reestablish himself in the Big Easy chair.
Els didn't have a round higher than 68 and finished at 14-under-par 270, two strokes ahead of Woods, No. 3-ranked Davis Love III and Ted Tryba—who in the third round blistered Riviera for a course-record 61—and three clear of Duval and Nick Price. "When you have golfers of this caliber all playing well, coming out on top is satisfying," said Els. "The way the leader board looked, I should've taken a picture. You don't beat these guys too often. This will go down in my book as one of the good wins."
The case for Els's supremacy is a strong one. He has held the top spot in the ranking before, as recently as last summer. He fell from No. 1 after back problems hindered his swing, limited his play and dampened his enthusiasm. Last June he was forced to withdraw from the Buick Classic, where he was the defending champ, because of back spasms. The next week he played hurt at the U.S. Open, in which he was also defending his title, and gamely made the cut. After that he played only six more events, his last Tour appearance coming at the Canadian Open in September. He was next seen in Australia in December, kicking American butt in the Presidents Cup, in which he had a 3-1-1 record for the winning Internationals. "We tend to forget about Ernie because he doesn't play over here that much," says Love. "He's had a good career, but in today's world it's, What have you done for me lately? Just like, The Bulls are over, now it's the Lakers."
Actually Els has done plenty lately. Before making this year's U.S. debut at Riviera, he won the South African PGA in January and tied for sixth the next week in the South African Open. The week after that he held a five-stroke lead in the final round of the Heineken Open, in Australia, before a triple bogey tripped him up and he lost by a shot. "I had won in South Africa and was going great guns again in Australia," Els says. "I was thinking, This is an easy game. One bad shot changed everything."
Els should be used to changes. His back problems began when he started a training program, which prompted his caddie at the time, Ricci Roberts, to joke that his boss should "get off the [exercise] bike and get back on the beer." Els and Roberts recently split, and Els's new caddie is Neal Wallace, who was born in Belfast and raised in Johannesburg. The Nissan Open was their second event as a team.
Els went through a more significant change on New Year's Eve, when he wed his longtime girlfriend, Liezl Wehmeyer, in Johannesburg. The late-afternoon ceremony was followed by a reception for more than 350 guests, which turned into a New Year's Eve party that lasted until dawn. "All hell broke loose," says Els, grinning. "It was quite a party."
One other change was Els's work schedule. He usually gets together with his coach, Robert Baker of Orlando, in February and March for an annual tune-up. This time they moved up their sessions to November and December. Els's practice has already paid off, not that anyone thought he needed the work. His fluid, rhythmic swing has always been admired by others. When famed instructor Bob Toski was inducted into the World Golf Teachers' Hall of Fame in January, he met Baker, who was introduced as Els's instructor. " Ernie Els?" Toski said. "The only thing you can do with Ernie Els is f—-him up."
Baker laughed as he retold the story on Sunday evening outside the Riviera clubhouse following Els's seventh Tour victory, his 29th worldwide. "Ernie's beautiful rhythm disguises a lot of flaws," Baker said. "We've worked very hard. He used to be a phenomenal putter but has struggled with that the last few years."
The putter repeatedly came to Els's rescue last week (he tied for seventh in L.A., averaging only 26.50 putts per round) except on the 72nd green, where he missed a four-footer for par, opening the door for Tryba and Woods. With a brisk wind slamming into the players' faces, Riviera's famed 18th, a 451-yard par-4 that plays straight uphill to the clubhouse, turned nasty. Love was the only golfer in the last three threesomes to make a par. Els, holding a two-stroke lead, had to use a fairway wood for his second shot—Tryba had hit an eight-iron over the 18th green the day before when he needed a birdie to shoot 59, but he bogeyed instead. Els flew the putting surface, chipped on, then pulled his short putt badly to the left.