If anyone understands the full depth of Tiger Woods’ greatness, it’s Ernie Els.
Els, the 52-year-old South African, has been one of golf’s great stars for the better part of Woods’ career. His 19 PGA Tour wins and four major championships have made him one of the preeminent players of his era — and one of Woods’ great sparring partners.
Of course, those numbers are dwarfed by Tiger’s 82 professional wins and 15 major championships, and perhaps even diminished because of Woods’ 82 wins and 15 majors. But as the Big Easy approaches his post-playing career, he holds no resentment towards Tiger’s dominance, even if it came at Els’ own expense.
“What an experience, right?” Els told hosts Colt Knost and Drew Stoltz on this week’s episode of GOLF’s Subpar. “Colt, you’ve played in the Tiger era. The thing that gets me the most, what separated Tiger from us, the one real factor, was his intensity on the first tee.”
As Els sees it, there were always players who approached Tiger’s level of skill, but the real differentiator — the thing that made Tiger Tiger — was his competitive spirit.
And as for proof? Els says to look no further than the first five holes of any round of golf.
“You know, you just want to get in the round, test out the waters of competition. A lot of us are like that, but Tiger? He was different,” Els said. “On the first tee, he was ready to go. he was ready to absolutely strangle the golf course and then get to the field eventually and really take down the tournament.”
That perspective changed the way Tiger approached competition, and it also changed the way his opponents viewed themselves.
“He wasn’t there to mess around. He didn’t play too many events, but when he played, he was ready to go,,” Els said. “His eyes on the practice putting green, he was absolutely focused on his job, and that is one thing that separated him then and still separates him today. You can just feel his aura to compete.”
After a quarter-century in golf, Els considers himself fortunate to have witnessed Tiger’s greatness from spitting distance. And if that greatness came at Els’ expense in terms of victories, it certainly didn’t affect him financially.
“If Tiger wasn’t around, I definitely would have won more golf tournaments, but I wouldn’t have made as much money,” Els says. “When I got on Tour, Corey Pavin was the first guy to win over a million dollars in a season, and now, look where it’s gone. When Tiger came in in ’97, we were still down there at the 2 million mark in purse, and bang, it just exploded. The world came in, and the PGA Tour just went from strength to strength. And so yeah, he put a lot of money into people’s pockets.”
That is a big chunk of what makes it easy for Ernie Els to say he’s grateful for Tiger Woods. His life and his career are better off for Tiger existing, even if ever-so-often, his psyche suffered.
This guy was just a freakin’ machine.
“His pursuit of winning, his pursuit of excellence throughout the event,” Els said. “There were tournaments in which we played the first two rounds together, and then we played the last two rounds together. To go right into the 72nd hole competing against him, it takes a lot out of you…
This guy was just a freakin’ machine,” Els continued. “He still is. When he plays, he’s there to win.”
And that, Els says, is the one universal truth of Tiger Woods’ greatness.
“With injuries, he’s half the man he was. But he’s out there, and he’s going to find a way to try to beat you on the course,” Els said. “What a guy, and what a time to try to beat him.”