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Major win energizes Els

Ernie Els has this way of making golf look so simple, hence the nifty nickname "The Big Easy."

But get under the red hair of the smooth swinging, 6-foot-3 South African and a more complex picture emerges.

For a time, it was filled with images of one very proficient player who threatened to make Els' career seem meaningless. Whenever Els looked up, there was Tiger Woods above him on the leaderboard. It started to take a toll.

And why not?

In 2000, Els finished second in three major championships, twice to Woods. The same year, he lost to Woods in a playoff at the Mercedes Championship. Having won two majors by age 27 and none since, he started to wonder.

"For a while, I went at it the wrong way," said Els, 33, ranked second in the world to Woods. "I played tournaments, played majors, against Tiger. And let's face it: Tiger is going to be there.

"So if you start playing Tiger on Thursday from the first tee, I think that's the wrong way to go about it. I think you're going to beat yourself up and not play your normal game."

Els got back to the old golf cliche of playing the course and not an individual opponent. "And if, with my talent, I play the golf course the way I should play it, I should be there Sunday afternoon," he said.

That's where Els found himself during the final round of last year's British Open at Muirfield.

With Woods' Grand Slam dream shattered a day earlier with an 81, Els was free and clear except for Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington, who had their own ideas.

Els, seemingly in control, had squandered his final-round lead and needed a 17th-hole birdie to force a tie. Later, Els would discuss how he pondered what his legacy might be if he threw away this opportunity. Things might be much different now.

"People think, to look at him, he doesn't try too hard," Nick Price said. "But believe me, he does."

In the Open's first four-man playoff, an aggregate four-hole extra session, Els made four pars and was tied with Levet, a Frenchman with two European victories. With another par, Els defeated Levet to hoist the Claret Jug.

It was Els' third major championship to go with two U.S. Open titles. Els, who is playing the Scottish Open this weekend, defends his British Open title next week at Royal St. George's in England.

"The British Open was definitely the start of the resurgence of my golf game," said Els, who has 12 PGA Tour victories and 31 international titles. "I think if I didn't get through that tournament, if I didn't win that tournament, I think I would have been a different player right now. That gave me the confidence and the little bit of the boost that I needed to get to where I want to get with my career.

"Before, I think I wasn't channeled in the right direction. I was more channeled toward players instead of to the golf course and the shots I have to play."

Els finished last year with victories at the Cisco World Match Play Championship and the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa.

He started this year on fire, winning the Mercedes Championship and Sony Open to begin the PGA Tour season. He added European tour victories at the Heineken Classic and Johnny Walker Classic and had two other runner-up finishes, both by one shot.

By March, Els had four victories and two seconds and seemed poised to knock out Woods _ until he injured his wrist working out with a punching bag.

Although he denied it at the time, that injury was a setback. When Els and Woods finally played together in a stroke-play event at the Bay Hill Invitational, Els tied for 38th, 19 strokes behind Woods.

A week later, he withdrew from the Players Championship and has not won a tournament since. The injury also caused him to withdraw from a German European Tour event.

And yet, Els finished ahead of Woods at both major championships, tying for sixth at the Masters and for fifth at the U.S. Open. Since Bay Hill, Els' worst finish is a tie for 17th.

"The British Open really made the whole difference," he said. "It made the whole turnaround possible. I said it before, (but) if it didn't happen, I think I would have been a different player right now.

"But it went my way, with a little bit of luck and good fortune. It kind of pushed me to go in a very positive manner. I think it's had a great deal to do with the success I've had."