Ten years ago this week, Tiger Woods put on what is most likely the greatest major championship performance in golf history, when he won his first of three US Open Tournaments at the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach. He overpowered a course that did not allow another player to even match par, let alone be under it. His 15 stroke victory will probably live at the highest winning margin in major golf history.

Coming in second that week was 24 year old South African Ernie “The Big Easy” Els. The Cape Town native burst on the scene by winning at Oakmont at the young age of 24, and continued to enjoy world-wide success by winning an additional 17 tournaments, including another US Open, the 1997 contested at Congressional, in Bethesda, Maryland, prior to arriving at the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach. When Woods’ highly anticipated entry onto the PGA Tour began in 1996 (“Hello, World”), it was widely assumed that either Els, or fellow American Phil Mickelson would the largest threats to Woods’ domination of the Tour, due to their players closest in age to Woods. This first US Open of the new millennium was supposed to showcase these three young golfing greats develop what most assumed would be a fierce battle for a seat as the “next Jack Nicklaus”.

What the 2000 Open at Pebble did, however, is firmly entrench Woods as the biggest bully in the schoolyard. That display so damaged the collective conscience of fellow Tour players, they all immediately began to play in fear. More players were seen at the exercise trailers, hitting more balls with the newest, hottest “guru”, or doubled up on visits to their favorite Sports Psychologist.  Woods then would coyly tell the press that he only had his “C” game after winning another tournament, as if to tell them that no matter what they did, they stood no chance. Els, while continuing to battle, showed the depth of his inability to stand up to Woods with his memorable collapse on the final hole, allowing Woods to win, at the season-opening 2005 Mercedes Championships, a tournament that Els had won previously with a tournament record -31 score.

After sustaining a serious ACL injury in July 2005, Els’ play noticeably suffered, to which Woods famously remarked,  “Ernie is not a big worker physically and that’s one of the things you have to do with an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury,” Woods said. “I feel pretty good with what I’ve done and I think Ernie could have worked a little bit harder.” Ouch! Kick some more sand in his face! In 2007, Els, some said foolishly, acknowledged his inferiority to Woods by announcing he was on a three year plan to improve to overtake Tiger, promising to work harder to improve his game. Three years later, Els has two wins in 2010 (WGC-CA Championship at Doral, and at Bay Hill), and Tiger….well, you know the rest of that story.

Thus, we arrive to the scene of the crime, albeit 10 years later, and what we see are the same competitors, but possibly in reverse positions. Tiger approaches Pebble this year with hope and promise, but without real confidence in either his physical and mental game. Els (and Mickelson), however, come in with a feeling that El Tiger has been wounded, and that he (they) have a chance not only to further their own golfing legacy, but to begin to possibly remove a brick or two from their biggest nemesis while they are at it. Els and Woods were paired for the first two rounds at Pebble, and, at least this time at the moment, Els came out victorious (T2 w/ 73-68=141) over a clearly struggling Woods (T25 w/ 74-74=146). Mickelson matched Els -1 score with a 75-66=141 as well.

With both Els and Mickelson recently reaching their fourth decade, coupled with the possible decline of Woods and their reascension to golfing superiority, it maybe it true that life begins at 40…again.

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