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Published: Thursday, 8/12/2004

Els disappointed, but still confident

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

HAVEN, Wis. - Ernie Els insists he brings no baggage into the PGA Championship that begins this morning at Whistling Straits.

He finished second by a shot to Phil Mickelson's 72nd-hole birdie at the Masters, was in the final pairing entering the last round of the U.S. Open, and lost the British Open in a four-hole playoff against Todd Hamilton.

The No. 2-ranked golfer in the world had three top-10 finishes in majors last year after bagging his last big title at the 2002 British Open. And he has equaled that number of top 10s in as many tries this year.

"Yeah, I feel a little disappointed because you give so much, play what you think is your best, and you don't really get a lot out of it,'' said Els, who also was runner-up in three major championships in 2000.

"But does it take away from my confidence? No. If you put yourself in that position so many times, you're doing something right. Plus, you know, in this game you lose more than you win. You just have to take your losses and move on.''

The close calls have left Els halfway to the career grand slam. He has twice won the U.S. Open and has a British title.

"That's one of my goals and this week is another opportunity to pull closer,'' he said. "Nobody has really played this course in championship golf before, so everybody starts out fresh here.

"I'd love to win here, obviously, and then the Masters in April. That would be my Cinderella story.''

Els, who has tour wins this year at the Sony Open and the Memorial, knows that of all the majors his track record in the PGA Championship has been less than stellar.

"That's a good question,'' he said. "Last year I finished fifth and that was, I guess, my best finish since '95 when I was third. I'm not sure why because the PGA usually sets it up nice for us, very fair. Maybe a little fatigue sets in, maybe I'm a little tired at this time of year, but it's hard to say. I feel I'm prepared to do well this time.''

WHO'S NO. 1? Any of three players could own the world's No. 1 ranking upon conclusion of the PGA Championship. If it is Tiger Woods, he will break Greg Norman's record of 331 consecutive weeks atop the ranking.

Els will move to No. 1 if he wins and Woods is not at least tied for second. He can also take over the top spot if he finishes second on his own and Woods finishes worse than a tie for 16th.

"I've been there before and it's a great feeling,'' Els said. "I know Tiger has a record on the line, but my goal is to play as well as I can and see if it takes care of itself.''

Vijay Singh could become No. 1 if he wins, Els finishes lower than second place and Woods misses the cut. Those are long odds, considering Woods has made a record 128 straight cuts.

WINDY CITY: Golfers aren't sure what to expect from Whistling Straits this week. Yesterday, for example, was more British than some British Opens - raw and rainy and gray with the wind whipping at a hefty clip. But the forecast calls for somewhat more benign conditions on the weekend.

"I played No. 4 and hit driver-2 iron and barely got there,'' Chad Campbell said. "I saw Luke Donald in the locker room and he said he was here last week and played it in driver-8 iron. So things can change around here pretty quickly.''

EURO WOES: No European-born golfer has won the PGA title since it went to medal play in 1958. For that matter, no Euro has won it, period, since 1930.

"I don't have any theories,'' said Spain's Sergio Garcia. "I just don't know. What I do know is that I'm looking forward to it because I came here to win.''

Padraig Harrington suspects that PGA Championship venues and setup are the most similar to U.S. tour golf courses than the other majors. Maybe that's a reason. Maybe it will be different here because this course definitely has a links-like feel.''

WITHDRAWALS: Fred Couples yesterday joined the growing list of name players to withdraw from the PGA for a variety of reasons. His was a nagging back injury. Jeff Maggert, who is currently No. 11 on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list, is skipping the event because his wife is due to deliver twins at any time. U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen recently suffered a hip injury in a Sea-Doo accident. Tom Watson, Thomas Bjorn and Nick Price are among others who have scratched.

BIG PAYDAY: The PGA of America announced a total purse of $6.25 million for this week's tournament with $1,125,000 going to the winner.



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