Woods hit safely onto the green during the opening round of the 2010 HSBC Champions in Shanghai, stepped to the side and looked over at Ernie Els shifting his hips to settle that 6-foot-4 frame over his shot.
“You know, I’ve probably been around this guy longer than anyone on tour,” Woods said that day, perhaps reminiscing about his final major as an amateur, the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, when he sought out Els for advice on whether to turn pro.
They both are giants for what they’ve done for their sport. Their final act will be as captains of the Presidents Cup in 2019 at Royal Melbourne.
Els speaks as eloquently about Woods as anyone. He is always honest and usually right.
He just couldn’t keep up with Woods, which was no shame.
No else could, either.
It was 20 years ago this week at Bay Hill when the potential for a rivalry still existed.
Woods staged the largest comeback of his career in early 1998 at the Johnnie Walker Championship in Thailand. Starting the final round eight shots behind Els, he went out well before the last groups and posted a 65, and then he beat Els on the second hole of a playoff.
A month later at Bay Hill, the South African had what he described as his “day in the sun.”
Because of rain delays, the final 36 holes were held on Sunday. Woods and Davis Love III were tied for the lead, joined in the final group by Els, who was two shots behind. Els got his revenge with a 65 in the morning, and he wound up beating Woods by 10 shots and Love by 11.
That was as close as Els and Woods got as rivals.
Els has finished runner-up to Woods seven times, the most of any player. That includes four times in 2000, two of them majors, three of those tournaments by a combined 28 shots.
It started with that titanic playoff at Kapalua when they matched eagles on the 72nd hole, birdies on the first playoff hole, and Woods won with a 35-foot putt downhill, into the grain with about 2 feet of break. Els also was runner-up by five shots at the Memorial, 15 shots at the U.S. Open and eight shots at the British Open.
It was at Kapalua where Els uttered his most famous line about Woods: “He’s 24. He’s probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s.”
In the short history of this event, no two players delivered more exquisite drama than Woods and Els in 2003 at Fancourt in South Africa.
Their names were placed in an envelope early Sunday in case of a tie, and when the matches were 17-17, Woods and Els faced off in sudden death. With every putt, all they could see was a cluster of blue shirts (International) and red shirts (U.S.) as the entire teams surrounded every green.
Els had to make a 12-foot putt on No. 1, the second extra hole, to extend the playoff. On the next hole, it was so dark they could barely see the green 231 yards away. Woods made a double-breaking 15-foot par putt, a tough one to make even in daylight. Els felt his legs shaking for the first time over a putt, yet he still managed to make his 6-footer to halve the hole.
Moments later, the Presidents Cup was declared a tie. Both were asked if that was as much pressure as they had ever faced.
“I’d like to hear what Tiger says first,” Els said with a smile.
“Man, that was one of the most nerve-wracking moments I’ve ever had in golf,” Woods replied.
This will be Woods’ first time as a captain. This might be Els’ last chance for a victory over him.
On the Sunday before Els won his last major in 2012, he thought back to his first trip to Lytham in 1996. Els chipped away at an eight-shot deficit against Tom Lehman until being slowed by two late bogeys that he knew would cost him.
He was in the clubhouse, needing Lehman to drop two shots to have a chance. Before long, Els had company.
Woods, who shot 66 in the second round and tied for 22nd as a 20-year-old amateur, joined him at the table and began asking for advice on turning pro.
“He was trying to figure out his future, and I was trying to figure out if the guy was going to make double bogey or not,” Els said. “Tom made par and Tiger turned pro. I was (cooked) either way.”
And then he laughed.
With 57 victories and 54 runner-up finishes worldwide — seven of them to Woods — that easy smile is never far away.