July 28, 2014

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Dahlberg: Els hoping to rock at Pebble

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The memories aren’t exactly pleasant, and Ernie Els has had to live with them for the better part of a decade now. Maybe that’s why he seems so intent on making some new ones this week at Pebble Beach.

It was here 10 years ago that Tiger Woods kicked sand in his face and made him the poster child for a generation of cowed players. It was here in 2000 where Els took his whipping, then had to go before the media to tell everyone just how great Woods was.

“Wasn’t easy for me,” Els said the other day. “Wasn’t one of my nicest moments.”

Paired together in the final round then, Els found himself in a place he couldn’t escape. Put together in the first two rounds of this year’s Open by some clever USGA officials, he now finds himself in a place he doesn’t want to leave.

Two rounds in this Open won’t erase what happened then. There are too many scars, too many reminders still.

But a 3-under 68 on Friday couldn’t help but ease some of the sting, especially with Woods shooting a so-so 72. On top of that, Els is in contention going into the weekend, tied for second just two shots off the Open lead.

“Some years I’ve felt really calm because I’m playing well,” Els said. “And for some reason this year I’m feeling good again.”

Making a few putts will usually make any golfer feel that way, and Els made more than his share in a second round played in benign conditions under gray skies. Making them in front of Woods had to make him feel even better, considering he finished 15 shots behind him the last time the Open was played at Pebble.

Els never waved a white towel in that final round, though he may have been tempted. He certainly sounded like he had given up on the idea of ever beating Woods.

“It seems like we’re not playing in the same ballpark right now,” he said after that round. “When he’s on, you don’t have much of a chance.”

The comments would come to haunt Els, even though he and Miguel Angel Jimenez finished closer to Woods than anyone else in the field in 2000. Like it or not, he became a symbol of the players who mostly gave up over the years when Woods walked to the first tee with his A game.

It didn’t help that over the years Els finished second to Woods more times than any other player, getting beaten by him in tournaments from Dubai to Dublin, Ohio. Didn’t seem to matter that he had won two Open titles of his own while still young, because he wasn’t going to win one with Woods in the field.

Els is 40 now, and though he has a British Open title to show for his last 10 years, he would be hard put to refute the argument that he has spent most of the decade underachieving. At a time when players begin taking stock of their careers and begin figuring out what their legacy might be, he has to deal with the reality his won’t be as great as it once seemed likely to be.

“The expectations are there, obviously,” Els said after Friday’s round. “And I probably fell victim to that a little bit because I had many – numerous – chances of winning majors, which I didn’t. I’ve won three and I look back at it now, I’m pleased to have done that.”

He would be even more pleased to win a fourth here, and not just because he would have his name on the Open trophy for the first time since 1997. For Els it would be the validation of a career that seemed to have no ceiling when he won his first U.S. Open three years before that.

“I’m 40 years old now, when I look back now it’s amazing when I think I was 24 when I won this event at Oakmont,” he said. “I must have been out of my head to think I could have won at 24.”

That, ironically, was the age Woods was when he beat Els in 2000 to begin a decade of dominance that golf may never see again. In the final round of that tournament Woods never said a word to Els as he finished off the biggest win ever in a major championship with a final round as impeccable as it was impersonal.

On Friday they chatted between shots, two veterans searching for wins for very different reasons. Nothing was at stake except position going into the weekend, but Els seemed awfully pleased for someone just midway through a major championship.

“Not too many people give you too many chances winning a major after 40,” he said. “But I feel good I feel my game’s there. I like to think I’ve got quite a few more left.”

Maybe. But this might be Els’ only true chance for redemption, his only real way to even the score.

One weekend of golf to finally erase 10 years of bad memories.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.