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Els Takes A Major Step With Victory At British Ope
by Doug Ferguson

GULLANE, Scotland (AP) ? Now that Ernie Els finally has the silver claret jug, maybe it's time for him to lose his nickname.

The Big Easy he isn't.

He only appears that way because of his 6-foot-4 frame and a syrupy swing so natural it looks as though he's not even trying. The smile comes easily, too, making Els look more like a gentle giant than a guy capable of stepping into the ring with Tiger Woods.

Don't be fooled.

"People think, to look at him, he doesn't try too hard. But believe me, he does," said Nick Price, who knows Els better than most. There are times when Els dresses the part.

He was the last man in the field to show up for the Match Play Championship early last year in Australia, a long way to go right after the holidays. The sun was setting on the final practice round, and tournament officials wondered whether he would even show up.

Els pulled into the drive at Metropolitan Golf Club about 9 p.m., wearing shorts, beach sandals and a T-shirt. He slowly climbed out of the car and looked at the small entourage there to greet him, then popped open a beer and grinned.

"Happy New Year, everybody," he said with that easy smile, before hopping into a cart to see the golf course for the first time - just 18 hours before his first match (he won).

There are times when there is nothing easy about Els.

In 2000, in the clubhouse at Augusta National after missing three good birdie chances on the final holes and finishing three strokes behind Vijay Singh, he repeatedly slammed his fists onto the table and cursed.

This is a man who doesn't take losing easily.

He rarely will say he's proud of himself, or that he had an enjoyable week, after a major championship ends without his name on the trophy.

Els only sounds like a pushover when he lavishes praise on Woods, when all he's doing is telling the truth. Woods is tough to beat. What else is there to say about a player who has won eight majors and 21 of his last 56 PGA Tour events?

"When I've played well, Tiger still has beaten me. What do you do?" Els said last week before the British Open started. "You have to play better."

Els has done his part. Getting the results hasn't been easy.

After setting a record as the first player to be runner-up in three straight majors - two of those to Woods by a combined 23 strokes - Els was determined to challenge Woods last year. He played the first three events and played well enough to win them all.

Instead, the best he could do was third, and he suffered his first winless season on the PGA Tour since he joined in 1994 after winning the U.S. Open.

Back to work he went, and this time it paid off - for a while, at least.

He built an eight-stroke lead over Woods at Doral, then withstood a furious charge in the final round before hanging on for a two-stroke victory. It was his first PGA Tour victory with Woods in the field since 1997.

"That counts even more in my book," he said.

The majors continued to be elusive. Els was the only player to seriously challenge Woods on the back nine at the Masters. He was the butt of jokes, however, after trying one senseless shot after another at the 13th hole and taking an 8.

"That fiasco at Augusta hurt him a bit," Price said. "He's just coming back from that."

Els' victory in the British Open might push him over the hump.

No, it wasn't a masterpiece at Muirfield. He led by three shots with five holes to play and was trailing by one stroke with two holes to play. The recovery was nearly as spectacular as his collapse.

He pulled himself up and got into a four-man playoff. Four steady pars sent him into a sudden-death playoff with unheralded Thomas Levet of France. One brilliant bunker save under enormous pressure brought him a British Open title.

"One of the hardest tournaments I've ever played," Els said.

How much harder would it have been had Woods been in contention? That's stuff to be sorted out over a pint in the pub.

Lest anyone believe Woods never would have folded on the back nine in a major, consider what happened at Medinah three years ago in the PGA Championship.

Woods nearly wasted a five-stroke lead by playing four holes in 4 over. He wound up winning by one stroke over 19-year-old Sergio Garcia.

Major championships are never easy to win.

Els still hasn't beaten Woods in a head-to-head battle since Bay Hill in 1998, but he certainly took a small step in the right direction at Muirfield.

Now all he has to do is keep winning, keep working, and make it harder for Woods to get in position for another shot at the Grand Slam.

"I'm back on track," Els said. "I can now legitimately try to win the majors."

He knows one thing.

It won't be easy.

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