TROON, Scotland -- Their respective stars are in seemingly perfect alignment. Their swings have been retooled, their games rejuvenated. They are ready to make a run this week at Royal Troon in the 126th British Open -- ready to show just who is the best player in the world.
For the better part of the past two months, they have played a high-stakes game of leapfrog at the top of the rankings.
First, it was Tiger Woods overtaking Greg Norman with a victory in the Byron Nelson Classic in May.
Then, it was Ernie Els pushing Woods aside with his back-to-back wins in the U.S. Open and Buick Classic.
Next, it was Norman's turn, with three straight birdies to finish the St. Jude Classic, breaking a 15-month drought and putting him back on top.
And, finally, it was Woods again, reclaiming the No. 1 ranking with his win two weeks ago in the Western Open.
The recent play of Woods, Norman and Els on the PGA Tour -- as well as over on this side of the Atlantic by Scotland's Colin Montgomerie and reigning British Open champion Tom Lehman -- has put a larger than usual spotlight on this year's British Open.
"It's nice that we're all playing well at the same time coming into the tournament," Woods said yesterday. "Now, it's a matter of us all playing well in the tournament. If we can all do that, it will be great not only for us, but for all the spectators and the game."
The pursuit of the Grand Slam ended for Woods with a disappointing performance at Congressional in last month's U.S. Open, in which he finished tied for 19th, but chasing Woods is again in vogue. And to paraphrase Woods, who has been made a 6-to-1 favorite by British bookmakers, many have brought their "A" games here.
"Playing the game of golf is not just about beating Tiger Woods," Els said last week before the Gulfstream World Invitational, in which all of them but Woods showed up and Lehman won by an impressive five shots for his first victory of the year.
"He's playing tremendous golf, and he has one heck of a record already," said Els, who finished second to Lehman at Loch Lomond. "But it isn't us against Tiger or Tiger against us. It's us playing the game and trying to put the best score on the board."
There have been some remarkable scores posted by all these players in recent weeks.
Montgomerie's 9-under-par 62 in the final round of the Irish Open helped give him a seven-shot victory. Norman's 5-under 66, including birdies on each of the last three holes, enabled him to win by a shot in the St. Jude. And don't forget the 7-under 64 Els shot in the opening round at Westchester Country Club that helped him go wire-to-wire.
It was the victory by Norman, 42, that was perhaps the most significant. It was his first win since last year at Doral, which was a month before his historic, final-round collapse in the Masters. Norman wound up playing 36 holes the final day, after the tournament in Memphis was delayed several times because of rain.
Asked how winning again on the PGA Tour sets him up for the British Open, an event that has produced his two major #i championships, Norman said: "I think it feels great. I look forward to getting over there. It's a different atmosphere, different turf, different type of shots you have to hit."
The victory for Montgomerie in Dublin two weeks ago was his second in the past month on the European Tour, and like Lehman's win Saturday, helped ease some of the pain from a disappointing finish at Congressional. Montgomerie finished a shot behind Els. Lehman was two back.
"Forgetting what's coming up, I want to save what is my best performance over four rounds in Europe," said Montgomerie. "I've shot lower, but this round is up there with my best. I'm very confident, and everything is going well at an important time of the year."
Traditionally, the 33-year-old Scot has not played well in the British Open. He has missed the cut the past two years and four of the last five.
That Troon is considered something of his home course -- his father, James, is the secretary of the club -- might wind up putting more pressure on a player who has a history of being easily distracted.
The opposite seems to be true for Woods. At a time when there were whispers that this 21-year-old phenom might be burning out a little, he silenced his doubters with his fourth win of the year and his sixth on tour since turning pro last summer. The way he won outside Chicago might merely be a prelude for what happens here.
"It doesn't matter because there's so many players at the British Open," said Woods, whose earnings of $1,761,033 this year are less than $20,000 off the record Lehman set last year.
"It has no bearing on if you're the favorite or not, because so many people can win the tournament."
But Frank Nobilo, a strong international player who, like Els and three-time British Open champion Nick Faldo, is now on the PGA Tour, said after he lost a back-nine shootout to Woods in the Western: "Tiger is the man to beat. No question about it."
If he were playing more consistently, Faldo would be the man to beat. Since finishing tied for third in the Kemper Open, Faldo has been 48th in the U.S. Open, third in the Irish Open and 30th last week at Loch Lomond.
But don't count out a player who has all but dominated this event over the past 10 years. Since making 18 straight pars in the final round of the 1987 British Open at Muirfield to beat Paul Azinger, Faldo has won twice and finished in the top four on four other occasions.
Most expect Faldo to make a run here in his 22nd national championship.
"When you have the best players playing together, a good player will always make another good player lift his game," said Els, 27.
In this case, it might be right to the top of the world rankings.
Where: Troon, Scotland
Course: Royal Troon Golf Club, par-71, 7,079 yards
TV: ESPN (Tomorrow- Friday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 7: 30-10: 30 p.m.); chs. 2, 7 (Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sunday, 9: 30 a.m.-1: 30 p.m.)
Purse: $2.7 million Winner's share: $422,500
1996 champion: Tom Lehman
20 players to watch
Ernie Els (8-1): The Big Easy finished second last year, but missed cut at Troon as 19-year-old in 1989.
Tiger Woods (10-1): Win in Western Open put him back on track, with Tigermania renewed.
Greg Norman (12-1): His only two majors came in British Open; finished second in 1989 "lingering death" playoff after X on last of four holes.
Nick Faldo (12-1): Has won three times and finished in top five on five other occasions, including tie for fourth at Troon in 1982.
Tom Lehman (12-1): Trying to become first repeat champion since Tom Watson in 1982 and 1983, a victory last week will boost confidence.
Colin Montgomerie (20-1): Best player in Europe, but has missed the cut in British the last two years and four of last five.
Nick Price (20-1) : Hasn't been in the hunt since winning at Turnberry, but death of longtime caddie Squeeky Medlen could make for inspirational story line.
Bernhard Langer (25-1): Yips, yips away, he's starting to make some noise overseas.
Jesper Parnevik (25-1): Failure to look at scoreboard cost him the 1994 British; has finished second four times on PGA Tour this year.
Mark Brooks (30-1): In the hunt the past two years -- finishing in the top five -- he could be again if the wind kicks up.
Fred Couples (35-1): Has played well in majors this year, but father's battle with cancer has left former No. 1 player distracted.
Jeff Maggert (40-1): Quiet Texan found his game in the U.S. Open (fourth) and Buick Classic (second); still searching for first win in four years.
Jose Maria Olazabal (45-1): With career-threatening foot problems on the mend, former Masters champ has been a factor again.
Tom Watson (50-1): Five-time champion, including 1982 at Royal Troon, is looking to tie Harry Vardon's record of six Open titles.
Frank Nobilo (60-1): Game is more suited to U.S. Open than British Open, but strong play on PGA Tour has given this New Zealander confidence.
Phil Mickelson (60-1): Creative game should help him more in this event than it has, but he's still capable of winning the big one.
Paul Stankowski (70-1): Becoming one of the tour's best young players, first trip to British could be interesting.
Vijay Singh (75-1): Solid record in the British the last three years, including a tie for sixth two years ago at St. Andrews.
Constantino Rocca (80-1): Lost in a playoff to John Daly at St. Andrews, but won the hearts of Scottish golf fans forever with his reaction to 100-foot putt after duffing his chip.
Paul Azinger (100-1): Lost on the next-to-last hole to Faldo a decade ago; starting to get competitive fires going again after recovering from cancer.
Pub Date: 7/16/97