ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Ernie Els knows what it's like to lose to Tiger Woods. They opened 2000 with Woods winning a scintillating playoff on Maui and closed last month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with Woods ahead by a scant 15 shots.
Just when it seemed as if Woods were going to start yet another four-day coronation, at the Old Course in the 129th British Open, where he is trying to become the youngest player to secure a career Grand Slam, Els showed up and put a halt to the proceedings.
With a 6-under-par 66 late yesterday that included one of only four birdies on the treacherous par-4 17th hole, the 30-year-old South African took the lead from Woods and another American, Steve Flesch, each of whom shot 67 earlier in the day.
Just as Woods did during the first two rounds at the U.S. Open, Els took advantage of favorable weather conditions in the afternoon, which included light, downwind breezes off the North Sea. The two-time U.S. Open champion also knew that he didn't want to get Woods out of his sights.
"You see Tiger at 5-under and you have not started your round, you know you have your work cut out," said Els, whose opening-round 74 in the U.S. Open left him nine shots behind Woods. "I'm happy I played well."
Even when he held a share of the lead, Woods was not ready to claim what would be a historic victory, one that would give him a second straight major championship and the coveted Claret Jug.
Nor was he ready to concede after his slow start.
"If it was an 18-hole tournament, I would be in trouble," said Woods, 24. "Since there's 72 of them that we've got to play, I had a long way to go. Anytime you start any major championship with eight straight pars, I don't care what major it is, you will take that start."
He also would take the way he finished. Not only did he make six birdies in seven holes beginning with a 12-footer on the par-4 ninth and ending after he nearly pitched in for eagle on the par-5 14th, but Woods also made the kind of par that few, if any, of his peers can make.
It came when Woods pushed his drive on the 17th hole into heavy rough. With 160 yards to the front of the green, Woods used his strength to punch out short of the green. He then lagged a 150-foot putt within two feet of the cup, and tapped in for par.
"I was trying to put it there," Woods said of his recovery from the rough. "I was able to do it, did it perfect."
Els turned out to be even better. After driving in the fairway - "The tee shot is everything on that hole," he said later - Els stuck a 6-iron from 184 yards within six feet of the cup. He made the putt and took the lead. He later missed a 10-footer for birdie on the par-4 18th.
"Under the circumstances, 17 must be the shot of the day," Els said of his approach. "You can make any number there, and walking off with a 3 and then getting the lead, it is very satisfying."
That hole - where Flesch also saved par from 10 feet after hitting into light rough off the tee - proved disastrous for some yesterday.
At 7-under and two shots clear of the field, Notah Begay made a triple bogey there. At 5-under and tied for the lead, former PGA champion Paul Azinger made a double. At 5-under and also in the lead, Ian Garbutt of England bogeyed. After making four birdies on the back to get to 3-under, David Duval bogeyed.
"I think anybody who designed that hole right now would be shot on sight," said Dennis Paulson, who made par there to finish in the group at 68.
There were 15 players at 3-under 69, including Begay, Azinger, Jim Furyk and Christy O'Connor Jr., a former British Open contender now on the Senior PGA Tour. Another 14 were at 2-under 70, including three-time champion Nick Faldo, former champions Justin Leonard and Mark O'Meara as well as reigning Masters champion Vijay Singh, former Masters champion Fred Couples and Duval.
A total of 50 players finished under par - including 36 of the first 72 - and made this historically difficult course turn into St. Avenel.
"This is the easiest I've ever seen the golf course play," three-time Open champion Gary Player said despite shooting 5-over 77. "The only thing that stopped the guys from really low scores are the greens. The greens are really poor."
What, and more specifically who, might stop Woods is another matter.
Consider that he led last month's U.S. Open by one stroke after the first round and ended up setting the record for margin of victory in a major, bettering his modern record and the all-time record of 13 set by Old Tom Morris - the man who put St. Andrews on the map - in the 1862 British Open.
Consider, too, that he trailed by one shot after the first round of the 1997 Masters and ended up winning by 12.
Coming off his first victory of the season in last week's Loch Lomond Invitational - a tournament Woods skipped for a week of fishing and a pro-am in Ireland - Els is ready for the challenge. But this is still clearly Woods' tournament to win or lose.
More than any other player considered among the best in the world, Els has watched what Woods is capable of doing. He saw him come from eight shots back two years ago to beat Els in playoff in a tournament in Thailand. He also finished second to Woods in this year's Memorial.
"I mean there are quite a few players who can step up and be the rival," said Els, who has beaten Woods twice, in a head-to-head showdown two years ago at Bay Hill and also at last year's Nissan Open. "I don't look at it that way, I really don't. I want to play as good as I can, and when I play well, I'm probably going to play with Tiger."
And what happens if Woods wins as easily as he did at Pebble Beach, where Els never considered himself in the tournament?
"If he beats me by 15 from now, there should be an inquiry," said Els, now ranked third in the world.
There would also be another coronation for Woods, this time with a Claret Jug, a hefty check and, most importantly, one more entry in the record books as his parting gifts.
First-round leader ...
Ernie Els 33-33-66...
and selected followers
Tiger Woods 35-32-67
Steve Flesch 32-35-67
Tom Lehman 34-34-68
Sergio Garcia 35-33-68
Notah Begay 31-38-69
Justin Leonard 36-34-70
Vijay Singh 36-34-70
David Duval 37-33-70
Colin Montgomerie 35-36-71
Fred Funk 33-38-71
Tom Kite 34-38-72
Tom Watson 35-38-73
John Daly 40-36-76
Jack Nicklaus 37-40-77
Complete scores. [Page 12D]