Tiger Woods is not finished... he's back on the prowl, says Ernie Els

By Peter Higgs

Tiger Woods, shamed, secretive and deeply troubled after the revelations that have wrecked his life and marriage, will this week make his first competitive appearance in Britain since the scandal broke nine months ago.

Woods will return to face British fans at the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews, the venue where in the past the world No 1 has reigned supreme.

Tiger Woods and his great rival Ernie Els

Eye on the prize: Tiger Woods and his great rival Ernie Els (left)

Ten years ago Woods was in the middle of the 'Tiger Slam' as he followed up a 15-shot victory in the US Open at Pebble Beach with an eight-shot win at St Andrews before becoming the only player ever to hold all four major titles at the same time by winning the US PGA and the 2001 US Masters.

In 2005, he returned to claim a five-shot triumph as he won an 11th major, a total he has now stretched to 14.

Yet how times have changed as Woods has struggled to rediscover his aura while fighting the inner demons of his private life.

A rare missed cut, a round of 79, a finishing place of 46th in last weekend's AT&T National and some woeful ball-striking in the JP McManus Pro-Am in Ireland at the start of last week were evidence of his problems.

The man will be as watchable as ever but can he ever be as consistently good?

No player has been more on the receiving end of the Woods domination than long-time rival Ernie Els.

And the big South African has seen too much to start calling time on one of the greatest sportsmen of the age.

Els spent two rounds watching Woods at close quarters in last month's US Open, in which Woods finished tied fourth, and insists he saw signs that the genius may be ready to strike back.

'It's the first time I've played with Tiger since last year and I felt the shots he was starting to pull off were more like the old Tiger,' said Els.

'His short game was very sharp. He's still hitting a few loose shots but I think he's going to be a factor at St Andrews.'

Tiger Woods and Ernie Els (right)

Open season: Woods (left) and Els have learned to handle the hype

Will Woods be able to cope with the increased hype that will surface at his favourite venue?

'Tiger will have his defence mechanism on and he's been around a long time,' said Els.

'There may be some more juicy stuff to come out but Tiger has come a long way and I don't think there's much more that can shock him, or the world. He's coming to terms with everything and, as for his game, he is very close.'

Els was on the receiving end in 2000 when he finished second, a distant eight shots behind the champion, while throughout the years a potential head-to-head rivalry never fully materialised as the man from Johannesburg suffered from 'Tigeritis' - a victim of playing in the same era as arguably the best ever.

Els, nicknamed The Big Easy for his enviable syrup-smooth swing, had the game, in the eyes of many, to win plenty more than the two US Opens and one Open Championship that have still given him an impressive career.

Yet injury, loss of form and even lack of motivation, on occasions, have limited his success.

Now 40, Els is hungry to make up for lost time. Two victories on the US Tour already this season have lifted him back to No 6 in the world and he was in contention to win last month's US Open, only for some vital putts to slip past on the closing stretch.

At the end, Els was so upset that he blanked waiting journalists and has made a promise to apologise to them at St Andrews.

'I was so disappointed,' said Els. 'I wouldn't have made much sense, so I thought it was better to say nothing.'

The fact it meant so much is evidence that the fire is back.

Els credits a move to Florida for his resurgence.

'My move to the US has been good,' said Els. 'The kids and the family are all comfortable and happy. We live on a golf course and I can practise year round. I've become a bit more single-minded again, like I used to be. I've had to reorganise my life and everything is working out. I'm in good shape, I have a lot of things at peace now and golf is No 1 again.'

Yet Els, a committed Anglophile, admits he misses Britain.

He lived for 12 years alongside the West Course at Wentworth, which he recently redesigned at a cost of £6.5 million, and does not rule out making the house his permanent home.

'Never's a long time, but I'll never sell this house in England,' said Els. 'I have so many friends here and there's so much going on. I'll always come back here and, when the children have grown up, I could definitely be back to stay.'

First there is much to achieve as Els attempts to emulate players such as Vijay Singh, Mark O'Meara and Jack Nicklaus, who all won majors in their 40s.

'I really feel that I can play the way I played in my early 30s, when I won a major and lots of other tournaments,' he said. 'St Andrews is ultimate place to win the Open. To win there must be unbelievable.'

Tiger Woods knows all about that.

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