At long last, we've found the dominant player—the Next Nicklaus—we were hoping for. We waited two decades for his arrival, getting teased along the way by the flamboyant Greg Norman, the graceful Fred Couples, the personable Nick Price and the enigmatic David Duval. For a while we even pinned our hopes on a young Stanford student, Eldrick Woods, who dashed them by quitting the game after winning a third straight U.S. Amateur. Now, though, we are secure in the knowledge that the Man has finally arrived. Everyone is talking, to the point of exclusion, to the point of ridiculousness, about a single player, Ernie Els, the new king of golf.
There's only one problem: Having the same guy win week after week is boring. Els's seven-victory season hasn't been nearly as much fun as we thought it would be. In fact the way he has dominated has become tiresome. Things could have been worse, though. Els is only a couple of lip-outs at Augusta from going for the Grand Slam at this week's PGA.
Ever since he won at Disney World late last year, Els has been on fire. He was virtually unopposed at the Mercedes Championships, and after impressively winning the Memorial, he beat Miguel Angel Jim�nez in a playoff at Pebble Beach to claim his third U.S. Open title. How good was Els in the Open? He was two over par on a track so difficult that even Superman wouldn't have been able to get into the red.
There was more of the same at St. Andrews, where Els opened with a 66 that demoralized all challengers. Then, in his first post-British Open start, Els went wire to wire at the International, piling up points as if he were playing in an Arena Football League game.
Els has become the sole topic of conversation on Tour, and the other players are sick of it. Everywhere they turn, all anyone wants to talk about is Ernie, Ernie, Ernie. Tournament sponsors are in a tizzy, too. If Els skips an event, that tournament is dismissed as unimportant. The winner is reduced to saying things like, "I played so well even Ernie would've had a tough time beating me." Sure, pal, whatever you say.
The spotlight is squarely on Els at Valhalla. Sure, defending champ Sergio Garc�a hasn't done much since his memorable shot from behind the tree at Medinah led to his first major title, but in other years, a golfer of his caliber, a guy who played such an integral role in Europe's heart-stopping half-point triumph in last fall's Ryder Cup, would be the focus of pretournament coverage. Not this year. Everyone's writing about Ernie, the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
As for that '99 Ryder Cup, there are two schools of thought on why the U.S. lost. One pins the blame on Duval, the '98 Masters champ, who had a bad week. The second holds that the U.S. suffered from a lack of experience. The team needed veteran leadership. A player like Mark O'Meara would've been perfect if he hadn't basically retired after winning a couple of Tour events in '97. If only someone had pushed O'Meara back then. Even in his 40s, he was capable of filling the big gap in his r�sum� and winning a major.
Now we need somebody to push Els, who is a nice enough guy, but one who hasn't exactly inspired the second coming of Arnie's Army. If Els had, maybe the Golf Channel would still be around. (If anyone takes another crack at such a channel, my advice would be to get a hot teacher to do the instruction shows. Butch Harmon is so yesterday.)
Els's dominance spells trouble for the Tour. Yes, next year's Players Championship will be played for an eye-popping $2.5 million, but Buick is discontinuing its sponsorship of four Tour events because the company can't find the cool golfing spokesperson it's looking for to attract young car buyers. The golf industry already took a hit when Nike, which could've been a big player in the business, dropped plans to make a special new ball and got out of golf altogether. The sport wasn't drawing a hip enough demographic, according to company officials.
Let's face it, Ernie Els is golf in the year 2000. All else is irrelevant, and if you think that's going to change anytime soon, you've probably been smoking the same stuff as the old Tour caddie who keeps saying that the Woods kid could've been a contender. Some guy named Fluff.