It's true, golf is always looking for the next big thing, and now here it is: Tiger and Ernie. This is definitely not Sesame Street.

No, what Tiger Woods and Ernie Els bring to the party is box office. They're two heavyweights at center stage, part three-ring circus, part opening night and totally captivating.

In the basement of some experimental facility, a bunch of guys in white lab jackets standing next to a bank of Bunsen burners, rows of petri dishes, bundles of graphite and stacks of titanium couldn't have come up with a better product.

A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to come up with a player who could stand on even ground with Woods and take him on. Els even had the job at one time and he lasted, oh, until Woods beat him by 15 shots at Pebble Beach and won the U.S. Open three years ago.

Some thought David Duval had the perfect mix to match Tiger's wiles and for a while, he did. The only player to be ranked No. 1 other than Woods in the last five years, Duval ended Tiger's 41-week run at the top for a period in 1999.

Duval won 11 times in 16 months, then started showing some slippage when his back acted up, followed in short order by his neck and shoulder. If Duval can get his body parts to behave, a comeback should not be unexpected.

In the meantime, or until somebody else throws his credentials in the ring and proves his own ability to wow, we've got just what we've been looking for.

That would be the two best players in the world, at the pinnacle of their careers, at the tops of their games. If heights make you dizzy, you'd better grab hold of something right away.

Now, very quickly, for everyone keeping score at home: Tiger has won every tournament he has played this year and Ernie has won just about every tournament he has played this year.

Woods won last week at Torrey Pines in his surgically delayed debut on the PGA Tour, while Els has won four of the five he has played, including the tour's first two acts, at Kapalua and Honolulu. But there's so much more to Els than cashing in on the Hawaiian daily double.

For instance, last week in Perth, Australia, at the Johnnie Walker Classic, Els set a scoring record and won by 10 shots. Exhibiting a stylish knack for even numbers, he is exactly 100 under par in his 20 rounds.

Do not think that any of this has escaped Tiger's attention. But put aside Ernie's victories and his record and his scores, there is something else guaranteed to catch Tiger's eye: money.

Besides winning, Woods is happiest when he is collecting checks. He has been the leading money winner on the PGA Tour for the last five years, but Els is about $1 million ahead right now.

The money in pro golf is crazy, so that is why there is $6 million on the line next week at the match play tournament in La Costa, Calif., where Woods and Els will be at the same event for the first time this year. It's golf's first heavyweight bout of 2003. Chances are they might not go head-to-head and wallet-to-wallet, since it's match play. That means both Woods and Els would have to win all five of their matches to meet in the final.

For their parts, neither Woods nor Els has gone to any length at all to stir up the rivalry issue. Woods says the rivalry is a media creation, but he has to realize the value in it. He has won eight majors and there surely are more to come, but his victories have been more about cold, hard numbers and records. Think about how much more personal and deep major championships become if they are achieved while locked in an intense battle with a primary challenger.

The appeal of a rivalry to Els is even greater. Beating Tiger is instant validation, not that Ernie, with three major titles, needs much of that, but also unmistakable proof he wasn't dropped into the wrong decade of golf after all.

You just can't make this stuff up, and the good news is that nobody did, it's being handed to us.

Inferior Backing

You already know all the players, but here's the latest update in the never-ending equipment/branding/endorsement saga involving Tiger Woods-Nike-Buick vs. Phil Mickelson-Titleist-Ford.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday about the upcoming Ford Championship, Mickelson (who represents Ford), said he has paid the price for critiquing the equipment Woods uses (Nike), but blames the media for not backing up his side of the story (Titleist).

Mickelson said Woods makes the most of "inferior" equipment in a recent interview with Golf magazine.

"I certainly should not have gone in that direction," Mickelson said during the conference call. "And I certainly paid the price, tenfold. What kills me is that all of you guys who printed it and found it easy to lay into me, none of you have admitted the accuracy of that statement.

"When I try to be honest up front and give a little insight, I get reamed for it. I don't know what else to say other than the only guy to win [this year] with something other than the ProV1x is Tiger."

Mickelson plays the ProV1x prototype ball (Titleist) and Woods plays the Tour Accuracy TW (Nike). Woods (Buick) won the Buick Invitational last week at Torrey Pines. Mickelson (Ford) is not playing the Nissan Open this week, but Woods (Buick) is.

All About Timing

Woods rolled in the last putt in his victory at Torrey Pines a little after 3 p.m. Sunday and about 51/2 hours later, Nike issued a press release with this headline: "Nike Golf Tour Staff Proves Superior at Buick." . . .

Speaking of the ProV1x balls, they're not available for purchase until April 1, but on eBay last week, four boxes went for over $200 apiece -- one for $265. A sleeve of three balls went for $115.

With $6 million at stake in next week's match play, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els will compete on the same course for the first time this year.