Ernie Els argues it will take longer for Tiger Woods to recover then people think. Ernie Els: PGA Championship just the start, Tiger Woods will not be Tiger for another year

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - There's been a sense that the 90th PGA Championship, which starts this morning at Oakland Hills Country Club, is some type of last chance to grab a major before Tiger Woods returns. That's the storyline that's been played up and bantered about until it's almost become gospel, the kind that's easily told on "SportsCenter."

Ernie Els isn't so sure of all that, though.

Els does not see the usual dominant Tiger just dramatically reappearing at next year's Masters. In fact, Els - one of the players most tormented by Tiger through the years - argues that this PGA Championship is only the second stage of an opening that could carry all the way through the end of next year.

That's right, the Big Easy sees a good year-plus of easy living (or at least easier living) without the usual terrific Tiger still to come.

"I had exactly the same injury, the same procedure (as Woods), and I know exactly what he's going through at the moment," Els said of his own knee surgery several years ago. "And it's going to take him a while to get over that injury. I guess his first tournament would be Bay Hill to try and get himself ready for the Masters. First couple of weeks when he comes back it will swell up, and he'll feel it for another six months. That's what I went through.

"He's not going to be over this injury for another year after he's come back. So he's in for a bit of a treat, so to speak."

In other words, relax with the PGA Championship be-all chance talk, there will be more shots against a limited Tiger to come. Whether Els is trying to convince himself of that or everyone else in the field, only he knows. What's certain is there are not a lot of players lining up to echo the Tiger-Woods-will-return-vulnerable view whether they believe it or not.

"I don't doubt Superman," Rocco Mediate said, laughing. "No way."

Tiger's back as dominant PGA Championpship speaking point

So much for the PGA Championship being a Tiger-free zone. Woods isn't just on the cover of "Visit Detroit" magazine this month - magazines that have been placed all over Oakland Hills - even though Tiger's never going to actually visit Detroit because of that knee. He's being brought up all the time by the other players - even when they're not asked about him.

Phil Mickelson, who wouldn't even utter Woods' name at the British Open, actually looked at a nearly half empty media center and blamed it on the fact that Woods isn't here.

Suddenly, talking about Tiger's absence has become the thing to do.

Forget the buzz over Oakland Hills' monster par 3s (at least until a slew of bogeys this morning). Never mind those diabolical Donald Ross-conceived greens that Oakland superintendent Steve Cook likens to "putting on the hood of your car."

With the PGA Championship here and Woods safely far away, kicking back in some luxury digs, other big names in this era of golf suddenly want to talk legacy. This tournament - often derided as the fourth major and completely overshadowed by Ryder Cup talk in the days before it begins - is a chance for longtime stars like Els, Mickelson and Vijay Singh to add a big exclamation to what they consider is a point that's gathering momentum.

The idea is that if you played in "this era of the next greatest player" as Els calls it, you deserve more credit for winning majors than if you played in a time without such a dominant singular force (like when Nick Faldo ran up majors largely post-Jack, pre-Tiger, for example).

"Not that it didn't mean a lot in previous times, but this is kind of a big decade that we're in," Els said. "Winning a major in this era means a lot. We're in a decade where the dominant player is pretty dominant. To win a major now, you make a huge step in your career, a huge step."

Whether golf historians will look back at Mickelson, Els and Singh (three majors each) more kindly because they still managed to win multiple big ones in the Tiger era, as Els suggests, is a matter of conjecture, of course. There does seem to be a little extra bounce in the golf spikes of all three of the golfers vying to be known as the second best player of Tiger's time, though.

With the clock racing towards 8 p.m. on the tournament's eve, and the sun beginning to set on the last group of volunteers on the course, Singh was only starting to get into his courtesy SUV - the one parked in one of the special spots with placards bearing the name of past PGA Championship winners in the field.

Coming off his win last week, Singh had pounded more golf balls into submission on the practice range than anyone else in the field, too. And he was finally ready to call it a night.

"This is great time," he said, grinning. "What's not to like?"

Els even joked about his critics - even the ones in his native South Africa who deem him an underachiever.

"When people don't get what they feel they deserve from certain athletes, you know they are going to criticize them," Els said. "As I said, you know if Tiger Woods wasn't around, I probably would have won a couple more (majors)."

Els paused, grinned.

"At least I've got one more major than Greg (Norman), so that's a bit of a lift."

August 7, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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