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

Not that it would have mattered today.

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 a 6-under-par 67, shattering the tour record in relation to par at 31 under.

Better yet, he stated his case as a legitimate challenger to Woods.

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

Woods missed the season-opening event as he recovers from knee surgery, but it's hard to imagine anyone stopping Els on a calm and defenseless Plantation Course.

The 33-year-old South African went wire-to-wire at Kapalua, overcoming a sluggish start to pull away from K.J. Choi and win by the widest margin on tour in two years.

"I'm not trying to send a message to anybody," Els said. "I'm just trying to prove to myself that I can play well. Let's see where it takes me."

It took him into the record books this week.

The previous 72-hole record in relation to par 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 shots the tournament record set four years ago by David Duval.

"You want to say when you win majors, that you played your best then," Els said. "But this is right up there. It's an unbelievable week for me."

Even more impressive is that Els was playing for the first time with new equipment and still won by eight strokes. In his last tournament, the unofficial Nedbank Challenge in Sun City, South Africa, he won by eight strokes 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 a 63. Mediate also was the runner-up to Calcavecchia when he set the PGA Tour mark of 256 in the 2001 Phoenix Open. Choi, who had a tough time on the greens, had a 73 and also finished second at 23-under 269.

Els won $1 million for his 11th career victory on the PGA Tour, and sits atop the money list for the first time in his career. He plans to play next week in the $5 million Sony Open.

He will be the big favorite until Woods returns.

Els has won eight times worldwide over the last 13 months, including a victory in the British Open for his third major.

South Africa's Ernie Els fires birdies on five of his last seven holes, ends up leading the season-opening Mercedes Championships from wire to wire.