Ernie Els did more than break a four-year winless streak at PGA Tour events with Sunday's victory at The Honda Classic. He brought another challenge into the mix at the 2008 Masters, where Tiger Woods is hoping to take the first of four major steps toward winning the 2008 Grand Slam.
Woods, who is unbeaten in three events this season (two on the PGA Tour, one in Europe), is playing the best golf of his career and has made noises about the possibility of completing a "perfect season" in which he wins every event he enters. That seems too far-fetched of a goal, even for Tiger. But a Grand Slam -- in which Woods sweeps all four of the 2008 major championships -- is worth discussing.
Woods already has held all four major titles concurrently by winning the final three majors of 2000 and the 2001 Masters. He'd love to become the first professional golfer to sweep all four in the same calendar year. And that is where Els' resurgence enters the picture as a potential stumbling block.
Els, 38, has rarely been a force in PGA Tour events, or at major championships, since undergoing reconstructive knee surgery in July, 2005. It is no coincidence that his last PGA Tour victory in the U.S. before Sunday occurred in 2004 -- several months before his career-threatening surgery.
For Els to regain his winning touch in the U.S., especially by doing so while posting a closing 67, will serve as a huge confidence booster for a golfer in dire need of one. Els alluded to that in Sunday's news conference, saying his Honda triumph ended "quite a ride" for him over the last four seasons.
"I've won tournaments around the world, scarce tournaments ... but, obviously, to win over here, it's been really my goal," Els said. "We play out here to win. I guess we get addicted to that feeling (of winning) ... and when you don't get your rush, so to speak, you miss it. I definitely missed winning over here."
Els also has missed being in the Sunday hunt at golf's major championships since his knee injury. But his victory at Honda, combined with some positive vibes from last summer, could make him a candidate to end Woods' bid for a Grand Slam before it really starts in Augusta, Ga.
Although he didn't generate a lot of headlines, Els finished a quiet T-4 at the 2007 British Open. He was two strokes out of a playoff. At the 2007 PGA, Els finished third, three strokes behind Woods. Those finishes marked Els' first back-to-back Top 10 efforts in majors since the 2004 season.
With his power off the tee and deft short-game skills, Els has long been considered an ideal fit to claim a Masters green jacket -- some day. He posted five consecutive Top 10 efforts at the Masters from 2000-2004, with runner-up finishes in 2000 and 2004. Although he hasn't been a factor at the Masters since returning from knee surgery, you'd have to think that could change when he returns to Augusta National Golf Club for the season's first major, April 10-13.
Before the Honda event, Els said his confidence level had dipped to seven on a 1-10 scale and he wanted to raise it to at least a nine by the time he completes a stretch of three consecutive appearances at Florida-based tour events on March 16. Consider his Honda victory a huge step in the right direction.
It might be the emotional jump-start Els needs to join Phil Mickelson -- and a handful of others -- on the short list of viable challengers to Woods at the 2008 Masters.
_ Jimmy Burch