This could be start of something big for new No. 2

Tiger was out of sight, out of mind. The only possible distractions for Ernie Els in the season-opening Mercedes Championships were the postcard views of Hawaii that he encountered throughout every step to victory.

What a way to start the year.

Could it be the start of something Els?

First, let's not get ahead of ourselves. It was just one tournament, and one tournament does not make a year.

Although Els is already $1 million ahead of Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour money list and figures to give himself even more of a cushion while the world's top-ranked golfer recovers from offseason knee surgery, he doesn't expect to get a free ride to the money title.

Still, this was more encouraging stuff for the new world No. 2 (that's right, the Big Easy is now No. 2). His victory at the Mercedes Championships was of the wire-to-wire variety, although he had to withstand a final-round scare when K.J. Choi pulled within a single stroke on the back nine.

He finished 2002 strong and picked up on Kapalua right where he had left off. Having won the World Match Play Championship and the Nedbank Challenge in his native South Africa at the end of last year, Els is apparently not content resting on his laurels. He's looking for more.

Els, of course, attributes his relatively recent resurgence to a strong 2002 season that saw him win six times worldwide, including the British Open at Muirfield. That's where he got over a little, ah, mental hurdle. And it has done wonders.

"I think I eventually mentally got stable again, my own little battle,'' Els said in Hawaii. "I just basically played my game again. Instead of trying to improve things, doing things out of the ordinary, trying to chase down Tiger, I just thought, 'Play my game, see where it goes.'

"I know I've got talent myself. Obviously, when Tiger's on, he plays on a different level. But I feel comfortable with myself again and my game. I still feel if I'm playing my game to my ability, I can compete. That's going to be my test this year. I really want to compete well again and do my thing, see where we go.''

Els admitted there were a few years where he let Woods get the best of him, not only on the course, but in his head. The 2000 season saw Els three times finish second in majors, twice to Woods -- and by large margins.

Poised to close the gap in 2001, Els went to the season-opening Mercedes and got beat by Woods in a playoff. He didn't win a tournament on the PGA Tour that year.

"Tiger went on a streak there which I don't know if we'll ever see again,'' Els said of the 2000 season. "The way he played, the way he hit the ball, the way he putted, just everything he did was obviously unbelievable. Unfortunately for me, I was just caught up in that kind of whirlwind of his. I kept finishing second. Then the next year, I was just trying to, 'OK, now I'm going to do this.' That wasn't quite me. I think that was the problem I was in.''

Els didn't completely exorcize the demons until last July at Muirfield, where with Woods knocked out by the weather, the door was open. Still, Els nearly squandered the tournament, making a double-bogey at the 70th hole before finally prevailing in a four-man playoff.

That was a career-defining moment. Els admitted that he might have sunk into the depths of depression had he lost the claret jug. Instead, the win gave him a big boost. Now he's on a roll.

Armed with a new equipment deal from Titleist, playing new clubs and balls and wearing new clothes, Els will embark on a busy beginning to the season. This week, he'll play the Sony Open in Hawaii. Then it's on to Singapore for the Singapore Masters, followed by the Heineken Classic in Australia. After a week off, it's the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, before returning to the Match Play Championship on the PGA Tour.

By then, perhaps, Els will be thinking about the first major championship of the year, The Masters.

That's still a long way off, but Els has to be feeling pretty good about things. Tiger is on the mend and Ernie already has a victory. As icing on the cake, Els also officially became Woods' top rival Monday when he replaced Mickelson as the world's second-ranked golfer in the World Golf Rankings.

And, for the first time since he started playing the PGA Tour regularly 10 years ago, he leads the money list.

Can he stay there?

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com