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Els catches Woods, but still just No. 2
by Associated Press

THOMASTOWN, Ireland (AP) - Ernie Els is familiar with his position in the world ranking, but not the scenery.

He no longer is looking up at Tiger Woods.

"Yeah, it's nice," the Big Easy said after winning the American Express Championship. "But I'm still No. 2."

Maybe not for long.

Els managed to pick himself up from a heartbreaking season of majors by winning his first World Golf Championship title Sunday to move ahead of Woods in the world ranking, leaving him only 1.66 points behind No. 1 Vijay Singh.

Woods headed for the Caribbean amid reports he was getting married and will play only three more tournaments the rest of the year, one of them in Japan where the world ranking points will not be as great since he no longer is No. 1.

Els and Singh probably will face each other four more times this year.

They are very close friends, having joined the PGA Tour one year apart. But while Els concedes Singh is having the best year in golf, the next step to No. 1 doesn't seem as daunting.

For one thing, Woods built an enormous lead during his five-year reign, courtesy of winning seven out of 11 majors over four seasons. And that also came with a mystique that no longer exists.

"I think definitely the gap will not be the same with Vijay as it was with Tiger, that's for sure," Els said.

Still, that won't make the climb to No. 1 any easier.

Singh has won eight times this year on the PGA Tour, only the fifth player to do that since 1960. Els won at Mount Juliet for his third tour victory and fourth worldwide. (He won the Heineken Classic in Australia in February over Adam Scott.)

"Vijay has got so much talent. He works so hard," Els said. "To get to where he is right now is hard work, and I don't think he's going to let it slip. But Tiger had such a big lead. He had two years like Vijay had this year. If Vijay keeps playing like that, he'll obviously be very tough to beat.

"But I don't think there's going to be that gap like Tiger opened up," he said. "So no, it's not going to be as tough."

Both were scheduled to play this week at the Dunhill Links Championships, the European tour version of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. They will be the top seeds next week at Wentworth for the World Match Play Championship, where world ranking points will be available for the first time.

Els will return to the PGA Tour at the end of the month for the Chrysler Championship in Tampa, Fla., and the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta. With Singh in the field, world ranking points will be high.

Singh and Els both got caught up in the chase for No. 1 earlier this year.

When the Fijian first started closing in on Woods in February, he missed the cut at the Buick Invitational and went nearly three months before his next victory. He was within a victory of getting to No. 1 in May after winning New Orleans and Houston in consecutive weeks, then went another three months without winning.

Singh later admitted he was thinking too much about No. 1 and not what it takes to get there.

Els, too, had two chances to get to No. 1 this summer by winning the U.S. Open or the PGA Championship. He was two shots behind going into the final round at Shinnecock Hills and shot 80, and he made a bogey on the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits to miss the PGA playoff by one shot.

"Another aspect of my summer was that the No. 1 spot was there," Els said. "I was very close. My main concern was to really try and win a tournament. But definitely, it was in my mind."

Still, he is not afraid to think about being No. 1. And it might not be as big of a deal as it was to Singh since Els has been there before, reaching the top spot for nine weeks during the 1998 season.

"The more you win, the easier it will come," the South African said.

Victories rarely come easy to Els.

The only easy time he had this year was at the Memorial, and even then he had to turn in a magnificent short-game exhibition for a four-shot victory.

He won the Sony Open in a playoff over Harrison Frazer. He lost a nine-shot lead against Scott at Royal Melbourne in the final round before recovering to win. And Sunday might have been the toughest day of all.

Considering his close calls in all four majors, and how much that took out of him, Els was under tremendous pressure not to let this one get away. Thomas Bjorn applied the pressure immediately and never went away during a cold, rainy day in southeastern Ireland.

Els responded each time, never let Bjorn closer than one shot during the final round and finally put him away with a clutch birdie on the 17th hole for a two-shot lead. That allowed Els a bogey on the final hole for a one-shot win.

"I had a lot more pressure on me, more than anybody in the field," Els said. "All in all, very rewarding."

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