TIGER—HE looms whether he's playing or not—often talks about "taking baby steps." He's making a swing change, he's learning to ski, he's chasing Jack, he does it all, he says regularly, by taking one step at a time, as if he were in a recovery movement. Last week at the Honda Classic, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Woods was absent and Ernie Els was the most decorated player in the field. He entered the tournament as the No. 4 player in the world, even though he had, in recent months and to use his words, "made a mess of things." In both the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December and the Dubai Desert Classic in February, Els went all Roy (Tin Cup) McAvoy down the stretch, drowning golf balls and losing events he could have won. Just the week before, at the Accenture Match Play Championship in the Arizona desert, he was trounced by Jonathan Byrd 6 and 5 in the first round. He arrived in South Florida looking for his first win on the PGA Tour in four years. It was as good a week as any to do it. No Tiger. No Phil (No. 2). No Steve Stricker (No. 3, page G20). Making the most of their absences, Els never had a round over par and won by a shot over the ever-poised Luke Donald. Big Ernie took himself a baby step. � Thank you, Ernie! We need you, man. We're awed by Tiger, of course. But we need someone to give him a go, and you're the leading candidate not named Phil to do it. Baby Step I: Win on the PGA Tour. (Done.) Baby Step II: Win a Tour event with Tiger in the field. (Maybe at Doral?) Baby Step III: Hang with Tiger right through the end of a major. (Maybe at Augusta?) Baby Step IV: Beat Tiger in a major. A man can dream, can't he? � "I'm 38," Els said several times last week, in a TV interview, in the press room, at the awards presentation. He knows what we know. He's not a kid anymore, but it's not too late to win more tournaments and more majors and establish himself as the second-best player in what the French call the Era de Tiger. Mickelson wears that crown for now. � Els is easy to root for. He's so open and honest and not afraid to let us see his vulnerability. Mid-tournament last week he described his confidence level, on the old 1 to 10 scale, as a 7. Even with the winner's key to a new Honda in his pocket, there was no big talk out of him. He's playing this week in Tampa, at the PODS event, and he said, "By Thursday, this tournament's forgotten. It's a new event. New week. A new battle begins." A battle with confidence. Could you imagine Tiger saying such a thing? Els said, "Right now, I'm just happy." You can relate, right?
His rounds of 67, 70, 70 and 67 were solid. The par-70 Champion course at PGA National is, as Donald said, "as much golf course as you'll ever want to play." It's the course where the 1987 PGA Championship and the '83 Ryder Cup took place, and in recent years it was given a major makeover by Jack Nicklaus, who lives down the road in North Palm Beach. The Champion is the kind of course where your everyday 90 shooter would score 110, with all that South Florida can dish out: ponds and creeks left and right; dense Bermuda rough; superfluffy bunkers prone to plugging; fast greens; constant wind. The Lukemeister's opening six-under 64, when it was gray and blowy and cold, had to be the best round played by anybody all year. It was Tigeresque. He did it in a ski cap and "all bundled up in a woolly sweater." You've got to love the Brits.
As for the play of Els, the harsh fact is that his 274, six under par, was not four rounds of perfect. Of course, sports psychologist Bob Rotella will tell you that golf is not a game of perfect. Els split with his old mindgames man, Jos Vanstiphout, about two years ago, and Rotella has moved in. Last year Els parted with his longtime caddie, the assertive Ricci Roberts, and replaced him with the more mellow J.P. Fitzgerald. Rotella was on the driving range with Els last week and followed him around on Sunday on the flat, sun-drenched course, semilined with town houses, condos and stucco homes. The imported palms were swaying in the breeze.
Unfortunately for Els, in the Era de Tiger golf is a game of perfect, or pretty close to it. Tiger has mechanical breakdowns but almost never a mental one. No one else can say the same. After his rock-solid 67 to open, Ernie capped off his Friday 70 with a missed three-footer at 18. Do you ever see Tiger have a mental lapse at the last? His head only gets stronger as the round progresses. When was the last time you saw him miss from a yard? Never ago. Then on Saturday, on the par-3 15th, Ernie "messed up" again, he said. The hole, one of the toughest par-3s on Tour, was playing about 165 into a hook wind. Most of the players were hitting five-irons. (What a joy to see!) Water right. Bunker and rough left. Nicklaus wants the guys to hit a Nicklaus shot there, a high cut. Ernie hit a draw over the water that never drew and never had a prayer. Splash. Reload. One wasted shot on Friday (the little putt). Two on Saturday. He played many excellent shots (Big Play, page G28), but you can't squander three shots in the Era de Tiger—at least not when Tiger's playing—and Ernie knows it.
"Tiger could have won this by six or seven—who knows," Els said on Sunday. "I missed four putts inside eight or 10 feet. I still need to improve on making those big putts. I need to make those putts down the stretch because there will be a tournament where [Tiger] is in contention, and hopefully I'll get a chance to try and beat him. So there are things I need to improve upon."
Els said Rotella was helping him recover his inner Ernie. "He wants me to be Ernie Els again, the Big Easy again," Els said. "I've been a little uptight and a little grumpy." Flying around the world as much as Els does might make you a little grumpy. So do bad swings ( South Africa), bad decisions ( Dubai) and bad luck. At Hilton Head last year, Boo Weekley holed out chip shots on the final two holes to beat Els by a shot. Els watched that unfold on TV. Last week, when Donald had an easy chip on the final hole to force a playoff, Els didn't bother to look. Every golfer finds a way to protect himself. Donald's ball finished a half foot short. Maybe things are changing for Els.
He certainly wasn't grumpy on Sunday night. In victory the Big Easy retired to a comfortable leather chair in the locker room, his big crystal trophy and a plastic tub of Heinekens on ice trailing behind him. Outside the locker room a band called Sweet Talk was playing Wild Thing for a dwindling group of Honda people. The South Florida sky went from blue to orange to black. The Big Easy did not move, drinking his beer, chatting with some golf people, in no rush for whatever will come next. Dates with Tiger are on the calendar. They'll come soon enough. For Ernie, a Sunday night on the PGA Tour that belonged only to him had finally arrived.
Alan Shipnuck's Hot List only at GOLF.com.