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Els sets record of 31 under

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Ernie Els could not have asked for a better start. He set a PGA Tour scoring record Sunday, won the season-opening Mercedes Championships by eight shots, and Tiger Woods was nowhere to be found.

In a record-setting start to the season, the Big Easy crushed his competition at Kapalua with five birdies on the final seven holes for 6-under 67, shattering the tour record in relation to par at 31 under.

And he made his case as a legitimate challenger to Woods, who is recovering in Florida from knee surgery.

"I don't miss him," Els said with a laugh. "He can take another month off."

The 33-year-old South African overcame a sluggish start to pull away from K.J. Choi. It was an important win for Els, who lost two chances to win at Kapalua the past three years.

The 72-hole record was 28 under, set by John Huston at the 1998 Hawaiian Open and by Mark Calcavecchia two years ago in the Phoenix Open. Els finished at 261, breaking by five the mark set four years ago by David Duval.

In his last tournament, the unofficial Nedbank Challenge in Sun City, South Africa, Els won by eight over Colin Montgomerie.

"It makes me feel very, very comfortable at the moment," Els said. "I can go out there and really think about trying to play well. I really look forward to the year now. This is really a perfect start, something I needed."

His victim this time was Rocco Mediate, who closed with 63. Mediate also was runner-up to Calcavecchia when he set the tour mark of 256 in the 2001 Phoenix Open. Choi, who had a tough time on the greens, had 73 and also finished second at 23 under.

"I don't see a problem with Ernie challenging Tiger for the next however many years," Mediate said. "I certainly think Tiger would love for that to happen. He likes to be pushed."

ACLU PONDERS AUGUSTA: The American Civil Liberties Union could decide as soon as this week whether to take a position on the controversy surrounding Augusta National Golf Club's exclusively male membership.

Dan Berger, media liaison for the ACLU, said organization leaders discussed the issue last week but had not reached a decision.

The Women's Rights Project of the ACLU, a group of lawyers with expertise in women's rights issues, conducted a conference call to discuss the matter, he said. The ACLU also was talking to its Georgia office before taking a position.

The National Council of Women's Organizations, which has led the effort to have Augusta National invite a woman as a member, has received the support of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH coalition.

The NCWO said if a woman is not invited to join the club before this year's Masters tournament, scheduled for the week of April 7, it will picket outside. Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said a woman will not be invited in the near future.

SOUTH AFRICAN OPEN: Trevor Immelman made a 6-inch birdie on the first playoff hole to beat Tim Clark and win the European PGA event in Cape Town. Immelman, who entered three strokes off the lead, made a 12-foot birdie on the final hole of regulation to finish 5-under 67 and tie Clark (69) at 14-under 274. It was Immelman's first victory.

AMATEUR WOMEN: Bradenton's Aree Wongluekiet shot a final round 1-over 73 to win the 48th annual Harder Hall Amateur in Sebring by a stroke over her twin, Naree. Aree finished 4-over 292. Seminole's Brittany Lincicome, who led after 36 holes with 146, shot 75 for 298 and fourth.

-- Times correspondent Dave Theall contributed to this report.

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