Ernie Els could not have picked a better time to show that he is on the verge of recapturing the form which took him to three major titles.His four-shot victory in the WGC CA Championship on Sunday came as Tiger Woods was preparing to confirm his return to golf at next month's US Masters, and no one will be keener to take on the world No 1 than Els.The Big Easy failed to deliver on his promise at the start of the 2007 season that he was launching a three-year battle plan to challenge Woods, although there were good reasons for his slip to No 20 in the world rankings.
When it was confirmed in 2008 that his five-year-old son, Ben, suffered from autism, golf was suddenly a lot less important for Els, a devoted father and family man.Two years on, having set up home in Florida in order to provide the best treatment available for his son, Els is heading back towards his rightful place among the game's elite.Six-times beaten into second place in major tournaments, Els has finished runner-up to Woods more than any other golfer.
That will be a source of enormous frustration for a player who has all the weapons necessary to overcome Tiger, and he will privately be relishing another chance to prove that he can do it.While no player will appreciate the achievements of Woods more than Els, no one will have been less impressed with his performance over the past three months.He accused the 14-times major winner of being selfish when he chose to make his much publicised apology at the start of the WGC Accenture Match Play tournament.
A few months earlier, before the revelations about his private life surfaced, Woods had said Els did not work hard enough after undergoing major surgery on his left knee in 2005, an obvious comparison with his own recovery after being out of the game for eight months following an identical operation.That would not have gone down well with Ernie, who has often been compared to Greg Norman because, for all their success, they have both endured much frustration and a fair helping of bad luck in their careers, particularly in the majors.
It is time for Els to put the record straight, and I sense that he is in the mood to do just that.The victory at Doral, his 61st tournament win worldwide, was his first since the 2008 Honda Classic. His putting stroke last week was better than it has been for three years, and while there is still room for improvement, the swing and rhythm was vintage Els, suggesting he is in good shape for Augusta.
Whether he will be distracted by the presence of Woods is a big question that only Ernie can answer. It is going to be very interesting to see how the players react to Woods.What the past few months have shown is that this is not the perfect human specimen he was thought to be, that he has a weakness in his character, and the rest of the players now know that.Regardless of this, if Tiger plays his best golf he will still win, although he has not played his very best since 2000.
A lot of his wins since then have come when he has played scrappy golf by his standards, while the three players I consider the next best in the world, Phil Mickelson, Els and Sergio Garcia, have all putted poorly.It would not surprise me if what we are seeing now becomes a familiar pattern, with Woods concentrating on the majors more than ever, and perhaps playing just one or two other tournaments as warm-up events.
He is even less concerned now about supporting PGA Tour events. That is especially true this year, with three of his favourite courses - Pebble Beach in California, Scotland's St Andrews and Whistling Straits, Wisconsin - staging the other three Gland Slam events.Tiger loves setting targets for himself, and what an achievement it would be to win all four majors in a season when he played in only four other supporting events, or none at all.
Whatever schedule he chooses, my big hope is that the best player in the world finds more time for the fans, and for the media, to help repair his badly tarnished image and give something back to the game.I was at the Senior Open Championship at Turnberry the last time Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus played in the event, and when they finished their final practice round in the company of Tom Watson a large crowd was waiting for them beside the 18th green.
More than an hour later they were still there signing autographs, chatting and joking with spectators, and clearly enjoying the experience. Things have changed over the years. The current generation of multi-millionaire golfers have never had to work to promote the game as the legendary Big Three of Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player did.I played with Palmer at Augusta in 1984 and will never forget the rapport he had with his fans. He said that if they were willing to give up a whole day to watch him play the least he could do was to spend a little time with them or sign a few autographs.
Palmer and others went to great lengths to protect the traditions of golf and ensure a healthy future for the game, something that is taken for granted now.When visiting friends in Florida recently, I listened to a group of youngsters on spring break from Notre Dame University talking golf, and in particular discussing a certain player who throws clubs, spits and swears when he hits a poor shot.As he pursues universal acclaim as the greatest player the world has seen, he knows he will no longer be remembered just for his golf.
Former European and US Tour player Philip Parkin ( www.philparkin.com) is a member of the TV golf commentary team for the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US.@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org