Els shatters records, turns heads in Kapalua

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Thirty-one under?

That's a best-ball tournament score, not something you're supposed to see from a single golfer in a season-opening event. Yet that's exactly the record-setting performance Ernie Els put on at the Mercedes Championships this week.

Why so low?

It was a combination of factors. First, scoring conditions were optimal because the wind stayed away all week. When you play a tournament in Hawaii with no wind, scoring is going to be unbelievable. The courses there are designed for 20-25 mph winds, and it never blew more than 10-15 mph all week.

On top of that, Els played some spectacular golf. He picked up a new driver this week, and hit the ball off the tee extremely well. He was the longest driver by more than 20 yards.

Els was also great in his short game. He played soft loft shots around the putting surface all week and never forced anything. He had a chip-in, a pitch-in and many great wedge shots. He has always been wonderful around the greens, where his soft touch matches his personality.

Els did most of his damage on the par-5s. He played the 16 par-5s in 17-under. He made four eagles, but probably had six or seven other reasonable eagle putts that he missed.

He is playing as well now as he ever has in his career. At the end of last year, he won the World Match Play Championship and the unofficial Nedbank Challenge, and now he adds the Mercedes to that list of recent titles. He's basically won three of the past four tournaments he's played in (he finished tied for 12th at the Tour Championship).

It's a run that's sure to grab the attention of Tiger Woods, who's at home in Florida rehabbing his surgically repaired knee and isn't going to make his 2003 debut until at least February.

In interviewing Els this week, I thought he was more focused than ever. He's got a new baby, and understands he needs to spend more quality time on the course so he can spend more quality time with his family. This victory sends a message that he's serious about his golf, that his big 2002 was no fluke. He's going to play 30 tournaments around the world this year, that's a big commitment.

Els is going to be hard to beat at the Sony Open this week, which starts Thursday in Oahu. But then again, you're talking about a full field to challenge him, not just 35 players. There's a chance a lot of guys will be shooting low next week, especially if the winds stay away again.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North serves as an analyst for ESPN, and followed Ernie Els' group around the Plantation Course in each of the final two rounds.