Tiger can still hit magical Major mark: Els
If not for Tiger Woods, Ernie Els might well have doubled his Major tally by now.
The affable South African has finished runner-up to Woods more often than any other player - nine times in US PGA and European Tour events - including the US Open and The Open Championship by a combined 23 strokes in 2000.
At The Open Championship in 2006 and the PGA Championship in 2007, Els also finished third as Woods went on to lift both trophy.
Such was Woods' dominance then, that Els felt the American phenomenon would go on to set a staggering new benchmark for Major wins.
In a phone interview yesterday ahead of October's Venetian Macau Open, where he will be the headline act, Els told The New Paper: "I've seen him up close, and I thought he would win 25 Majors before he turned 40."
Els would not be faulted for being sick at the sight of Woods, and the constant questions about the 14-time Major champion that he has been peppered with over the years, but the 44-year-old has a soft spot for the former world No. 1.
The "Big Easy" has known Woods longer than many of the golfers on tour today.
They were together in the clubhouse at Royal Lytham & St Annes during the 1996 British Open when Woods, still an amateur then, sought the South African's guidance on whether to turn professional.
Woods listened and duly turned pro a month later, in August, and went on to dominate golf for an era.
Maybe he should ask Els' advice again, after the superstar's recent split with coach Sean Foley.
"I think he doesn't need a coach. He needs maybe a friend of his to lay eyes on him all the time just to check his fundamentals," said Els, who still believes 38-year-old Woods can overhaul Jack Nicklaus' all-time Major mark of 18.
"At 44, I know where I am at, and Tiger's not 40 yet so there's still a lot of life left in the dog.
"I think he just needs to look at tapes and see what his body can do, and see if his body can do the same as he did back in the day.
"He was, on his day, probably longer than Rory (McIlroy) is today off the tee. He was an unbelievable driver of the golf ball, and I think he can get that back.
"He's young enough, he's strong enough. He's had some really bad injuries to his tendons and to his back now, that's not a great sign. But if he's healthy, he's shown that he can win."
Even when he's struggling with his game, Woods continues to make headlines.
But today, the man upstaging him on the golf course, along with every other pro in the game, is Rory McIlroy.
The 25-year-old Northern Irishman won the year's last two Majors - the British Open and the US PGA Championship - and with four to his name already (the same as Els), the world No. 1 is the latest star being touted as someone who could overtake Nicklaus' magical mark.
But Els, the former world No. 1 who is now ranked 47th, does not believe the torch has been passed on from Woods to McIlroy, as some have suggested.
But he did praise McIlroy for the way he has hunkered down after his split from fiancée and tennis pro, Caroline Wozniacki.
"I've had my eyes on him ever since he turned pro in 2007 and he just looks like a world-beater, a cut above the rest," said Els.
"When Rory's on form, he hits the straightest and longest of drivers. If he stays committed and on course, so to speak, he has a long way to go.
"He does have a bit of weakness when he takes his eye off the ball. Whereas Tiger brings about an intensity on the course from the first tee, Rory is more relaxed and happy-go-lucky."
Given McIlroy's personality, Els thinks it would be a mistake to set Nicklaus' record as a target.
"It's hard to put a record like that as your career (goal). Because if you get hot, with a lot of talent like Rory and Tiger have, you can win a bunch of tournaments," he said.
"But to purely set up a career to try and beat the record, I don't think you're going to have too much fun.
"I think you need to be yourself... let's see what Rory does. But to put a record there and try and beat that, I think you're going to get disappointed quickly."