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To win his fourth major title, Ernie Els will need to wave good-bye to Tiger Woods. (Photo: Getty Images)
To win his fourth major title, Ernie Els will need to wave good-bye to Tiger Woods. (Photo: Getty Images)

Like old times, Els is back in contention at a major

Erie Els played like the Big Easy of old on Friday at Royal Liverpool. That was Step One in his return to championship form. Step Two is winning a weekend showdown with the world's best player, and Els is happy to have the chance to try it.

HOYLAKE, England (AP) -- Ernie Els knew what he had to do before he struck the first shot Friday.

Go low -- real low -- and keep Tiger Woods in his sights at the Open Championship.

The Big Easy handled that part just fine, matching Woods' score in the second round and pulling within one stroke of the leader.

Now, Els has to show he can win a weekend showdown with the world's greatest player, a guy who's never, ever lost a major when running out front after 36 holes.

"I'm just happy to be in this position," Els said. "I really was trying to get into this final group. I haven't been in this position for a while."

A while indeed.

Els hasn't seriously contended in a major since the 2004 PGA Championship, a drought that included some down time to recover from an-off-the-course injury. After finishing 34th at last year's Open, he went tubing on the Mediterranean, blew out his left knee and underwent surgery that knocked him out for the rest of the season.

Only now does he feel fully recovered.

"It's been a tough 12 months, to be honest with you," Els said. "But I'm ready to play again and I'm in a really nice position now, so I'm looking forward to the weekend."

It's a position the laid-back South African has been in plenty of times before, the last six majors notwithstanding.

Els has won three of golf's biggest titles, including the 2002 Open in a playoff, but he's come up short a lot more than he's won, a litany of close-but-no-cigar finishes that hint at a player who's never quite fully lived up to his potential.

In 1995, he couldn't hold on to the 54-hole lead at Riviera in the PGA Championship. The following year, he finished two strokes behind Tom Lehman at the Open. He was the runner-up in three straight majors in 2000, though only one of them (the Masters) was all that close; Woods ran away with the U.S. and British opens in a rout.

No year was more galling than 2004. He lost the Masters by one stroke when Phil Mickelson rolled in a birdie putt at the final hole. Els played in the final group at the U.S. Open but fell apart with an 80. Then came a playoff in the Open, which Els lost to little-known Todd Hamilton. Finally, needing par to get into another playoff at the PGA Championship, Els three-putted from 100 feet on the 72nd hole for a bogey.

Now, he's got another chance to win his fourth major.

"I've been a good player myself for a long time," said Els, only 36 but a guy who came along when Greg Norman and Nick Price were top players and now contends against the likes of Woods and Mickelson. "I've taken a bit of a dip in form and so forth, but I've worked hard to get back."

Noticing a shift in the breezes blowing in from the Irish Sea, Els played a bit more conservative in the second round at Royal Liverpool than he did Thursday. His strategy worked out just fine -- a seven-birdie, no-bogey 65 that was probably more impressive in its own way than Woods' own round of 65, which included an improbable eagle from 209 yards and a 50-foot birdie putt.

Els didn't do anything that dramatic. None of his birdie putts was longer than 18 feet and he was especially efficient on the very reachable par 5s, making birdies of all four of them for an 11-under 133 that was one stroke higher than Woods.

Just what he had to do when he spotted Woods' number on the board at the start of the day.

"I saw the score and obviously he's a great player," Els said. "But if he's 12-under, there's birdies to be made out there. I had to get my share of them."

Now, he's got to do it all over again on the weekend. Woods is the greatest closer in golf, going 6-0 in the majors when he's the one with the 36-hole lead. Els wants to be the one who ends that streak.

"I wasn't going to back down," he said. "I've played with Tiger so many times. Obviously, he's the greatest player of our generation and I've got to do my thing, play my game, play to my strengths and we'll shake hands at the end."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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