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Els Shooting for Two in a Row at Congressional
The last time the U.S. Open was played at Congressional Country Club, 1997, Ernie Els won his second Open title. The popular player known as the "Big Easy" took a third major championship when he won the 2002 British Open at Muirfield.
The 41-year-old South African returns to Bethesda, Md., for this week's U.S. Open at Congressional, which tees off Thursday. Els will be paired with Davis Love III and Jim Furyk in the first two rounds.
Els, who was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame in May, has struggled with his game lately. He came close in last year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but a 2-over 73 in the final round dropped him into a tie for third, two strokes behind champion Graeme McDowell.
That final-round performance still nags at Els. "I've thought about that because since that U.S. Open, I haven't done anything," he said on Tuesday at Congressional. "Well, I won the South African Open, but other than that, I haven't done anything. When I look back at Pebble Beach, I played such wonderful golf from tee to green. I really found my swing that week, and I wasn't even that bad on the greens. That back nine . . . I just kept missing inside 8 feet almost on every hole. And I was really, really very disappointed after that.
"I went to Munich that next week, and I was just as flat as I've ever been in my life," he added. "I don't know exactly how the brain works, but yeah, that was quite a big disappointment. I really felt that I did play the golf that I wanted to play, that I envisioned to play, and I didn't quite get the result that I wanted. You've got to give credit to Graeme McDowell, the way he played. But from my point of view, I felt like I let one slip away there."
On Tuesday, Els met with reporters for a wide-ranging discussion that included his recent play, that big win at Congressional and the changes to the Blue course for this year's U.S. Open, and his work with the Els for Autism foundation, which was started for his son Ben, who suffers from the disorder. Here's what Els had to say.
MODERATOR: Good morning. Thank you again for joining us at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. We're very pleased this morning to have with us a two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, who one of his victories was here in 1997 here at Congressional Country Club. Can you talk a little bit about your win that week and then being back here this week for the U.S. Open again this week?
ERNIE ELS: It's a long time ago. I came here last week, played a couple of rounds in the heat. It was about 102. But just playing the course, every time I play it it brings back great memories. Obviously the course changed a little bit with the 18th hole, the then-17th hole, and the holes really changed back to the 10th hole. The finish was obviously very different than it's going to be this week, but the rest of the course is very, very similar. They've lengthened a couple of holes since '97, but I think with technology they're almost playing the same. But '97 was just a very, very special week. Coming into the week with not a lot of form, and to win the '97 U.S. Open was a great big surprise to myself and my family and then obviously set me up for a great year, which I had, won the next week and set me up for a great year. I'm looking forward to so many things. It would be really nice. But just looking forward to a good week.
MODERATOR: This is your 19th U.S. Open. Could you talk a little bit about playing the U.S. Open and playing in front of the crowds here, being back where you're a past champion?
ERNIE ELS: Well, yeah, I think it'll be different than back in '97. You know, Congressional, they've made me a member here now, so I'm one of the guys. I've played the -- I think it was back then the Booz Allen event five or six years ago I played here, both the golf courses outside D.C. here, so there's quite a lot of connection here now. I feel a little bit more at home than I did back in '97, I think. It's a unique venue this week, you know, playing the U.S. Open in the nation's capital. I think that's why it's a special venue.
Q. Could you summarize, if you could, what in your mind it takes for somebody to win a major championship, the most important thing that happens during that week on the road to winning?
ERNIE ELS: Well, it's belief. You know, you've got to have that picture in your mind, a clear picture of you lifting the trophy, and I think it's a long, long journey, a long road to get to that Sunday afternoon presentation. So there's a lot of ups and downs that you have to face. But at the end of the day you've just got to keep believing that it's your week. And then, I think, with the belief and the hope that you have, I think the game is -- it's a funny game; you start getting good breaks and when you start getting good breaks the belief gets stronger. It's really having that little dream in front of you and just keep playing. It's a big struggle out there. At times you feel like you want to go home, but it's the U.S. Open and it's a special week.
Q. Similar to that, can you talk about the confidence you had coming out of your victory here in '97? I believe you were 25 years old. You were on top of the world. Can you remember back to that time and how you must have felt on top of the mountain?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I mean, as I say, in '97 I didn't come in here with a lot of form. Back then we played Avenel across the road, and I missed the cut there, and I think I missed the cut the tournament before that. So I was a little bit on shaky ground. But the weekend before the U.S. Open started, I did a lot of work here at the course. I just loved what I saw. And through the practice days, I really found my game, I found my swing and found my putting stroke. From having no confidence that week going into Thursday, I had a little bit of hope. I didn't screw up too bad here the first round. And then it started happening for me. So winning that Tour event just gave me all the belief in the world, and I went on the next week, went to Westchester, which is one of my favorite places, and from having little to no confidence to, as you say, feeling like you're on top of the world. I went out there and I think I won that tournament by eight shots. It was a big turnaround in my year, and it just shows you what a major championship can do.
Q. You've been in the States quite a long time. I just wonder if you have any thoughts on the current state of American golf. It's the first time since '94 where America hasn't held a major championship. Do you have any thoughts on what the issues might be?
ERNIE ELS: Well, it's been quite a while then, I guess. Everything happens in cycles, and I can see it happening again now. I remember back in the early '90s, Europe was dominating like they are dominating now on the World Rankings. You know, you had Nick Faldo, you had Bernhard Langer, Woosie, Seve, those kind of guys, and now you've got the same; you've got Luke Donald -- I mean, he plays mostly on the U.S. Tour but he's European, and Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell and so forth. They've definitely got the upper hand at the moment, and it'll probably change again in the future.
Q. There have been several less accomplished players who have had breakthroughs in events recently. Is it really harder to win a major, or is it as hard as any other tournament on the Tour?
ERNIE ELS: Well, I think, again, it goes back to what I just said. I think it goes in cycles. This is my 19th U.S. Open, so for 20 years you play at a certain level in the game, and you guys have written and talked a lot about us as a group of players, meaning myself, Phil and Tiger and Jim Furyk and Davis Love and those type of guys. We've been around a long time. And then obviously we had Tiger dominating for 15 years, as well, within that time period. So for a long time it's been a group of players, and I think the cycle is also changing a little bit now. It's just a matter of time. You can't beat time. These 20-somethings are coming through and they've got the confidence, and obviously they feel it's their time. So you talk about guys not well known, well, I was not well known when I won. When I won in '94 I think you guys must have thought I was the biggest surprise in the history of the game. But you find your ground and you start playing, and you know, here we are 18, 19, whatever years later, and you know me a little bit better now, and I think you'll see the same happen with the 20-somethings, not being very well-known now, and you'll be probably talking about them for 20 years, I'm sure.
Q. You've thrived in hot weather before. It was really hot here last time. It wasn't exactly cool at Oakmont, either. But it's really cool right now. Are you hoping -- do you prefer hotter weather, and what would you like it to be like on Saturday and Sunday?
ERNIE ELS: Well, as I said, I was here last week, and it was 102, and I had my shorts on. I don't know what it is. You know, just by chance probably it happened because where I'm from in Johannesburg in South Africa, the weather is very similar to what it is today, low 80s. But for some reason, those two U.S. Opens came in very warm weather. I don't mind it because it really frees your body up. You don't have any kinks in your back or whatever, so you can go there. But I've got no real explanation about that. It just happened. But I'd like to see it warm, to come back to your question.
Q. Last year you were right in it at Pebble. I'm just wondering two things: Did that linger at all for you afterward? Was that one tough to bounce back from? And did it have anything to do with some of your struggles this year, or is that a new thing? You've had some frustrations this year, as well.
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, that's a good question. I've thought about that because since that U.S. Open I haven't done nothing -- well, other than I won the South African Open; I should take that back. But other than that South African Open win I haven't done anything. When I look back at Pebble Beach, I played such wonderful golf from tee to green. I really found my swing that week, and I wasn't even that bad on the greens. It's just that back nine, it seems like I just kept missing inside eight feet almost on every hole, and I was really, really very disappointed after that. We flew from Pebble to -- I think I had to be in Munich next week, and I was just as flat as I've ever been in my life. You know, I don't know exactly how the brain works, but yeah, that really was quite a big disappointment. I really felt that I did play the golf that I wanted to play, that I envisioned to play, and I didn't quite get the result that I wanted. But you've got to give credit to Graeme McDowell, the way he played. But from my point of view, I felt like I let one slip away there.
Q. In the last three years, three South Africans have come out of nowhere virtually and won majors. What do you put that down to? Is it just the ability to seal the deal when the chance is there, or are there more who could come through this week perhaps and do the same?
ERNIE ELS: Well, I think, you know, the way they came through the system, should I say, I think South Africa needs to take a lot of credit for that. We've got great junior programs, great amateur programs, and it's been in place even when I was a junior, even before I was born it was in place. And it's been kept in place by really, really good people. Obviously I had a bit of a hand in Louis and Charl, but again, they were born with the talent, they had the drive -- inner drive within themselves. Even without our help, I'm sure they would have made it to where they are today. And it's because of things set in place at a very early stage in South Africa. We've got a great golfing history, and we're very proud of that, and we keep maturing that. And I think that's why you will keep on seeing youngsters coming through from South Africa. I'm actually playing with a youngster this afternoon, Christo Greyling. He went through college here in America, and he's probably going to be a good player, as well. There is a lot of talent that's going to keep coming through.
Q. You mentioned the 20-somethings. Obviously there are a bunch of guys who have won the Open in this field. Rory McIlroy was so close at the Masters and we all saw what happened there in that final round. I don't know if you've talked to him, but how would you counsel a guy who was so close and didn't get it done?
ERNIE ELS: It's tough. You know, I mean, I'm probably the best guy to ask for advice because I've done so many things in my career where I didn't quite close a lot of events. But he's very young. He's still learning. He's got all the talent in the world. He's a future No. 1 without a doubt. First time I ever saw him, I thought, he's incredible. And he is incredible. And he's still learning. That's why -- I mean, he made some mistakes there, and he's still learning. He's 21 years old; he's not perfect. Nobody is perfect. But he can really change the -- maybe the history again. He's got that kind of talent. When he breaks through, he can just open the flood gates, but he's just got to break through. He obviously had an opportunity there, and hopefully he's learned from it and he didn't get too despondent about screwing up on that 10th hole. But if he keeps learning and keeps going, keeps his head up, boy, I think he's going to win a lot of majors, but obviously he has to win the first to win a lot.
Q. You said belief is key for winning a major. Do you have belief in your game right now?
ERNIE ELS: I want to say yes. I've had a week off after Memorial. At Memorial I felt I was hitting the ball well, but I got in my own way again. I had a good week off last week, played out here, got myself familiar with the course again, got obviously great vibes. I think I've got a nice draw. So I'm looking forward to a good week. I'd really love to have a really good week and see where it goes.
Q. And also, your becoming a member here, how did that come about and how can that help you this week?
ERNIE ELS: Well, it's easy, you've just got to win a U.S. Open. (Laughter). They even made me a member at Oakmont, believe it or not. So just win a U.S. Open, you'll become a member. So keep practicing. (Laughter.)
Q. When you won here in '97, if I remember correctly you played with Monty in the final round.
ERNIE ELS: Yeah.
Q. Just wondered what memories you have of the atmosphere, two foreigners playing in the final group at the U.S. Open?
ERNIE ELS: I think we felt very comfortable because at that stage, myself and Monty, we had quite a nice little rivalry going ourselves. Playing at the World Match Play or playing golf in Europe or even the U.S. Opens, we played a lot of golf against each other, and we respected each other as players. So we really kind of pulled each other along, I must admit. That's the way I felt. He made an early move and then I'd come and then he'll come and then the guys behind us, Tom and Jeff Maggert were always there. So it was a great battle. Obviously I say great battle because I came through winning the tournament. But we really kept each other going, and we're going to miss Colin here this week. He tried to qualify at Walton Heath but he didn't quite make it. Yeah, we had a great rivalry going, and I feel that he actually in a way helped me stay focused and really ultimately winning the tournament.
Q. Is your determination or sense of urgency or fight or whatever you want to call it, is that any different now than it was say ten years ago?
ERNIE ELS: Yes, it is. You know, it's almost too much. I've almost got to dial it down a bit because my form so far this year has been atrocious. I want to change it as soon as possible. I think my patience level -- they say when you get older, it gets better, but I don't know; I think I'm a little different. That's been part of my problem is trying to change things around and getting back to normalcy. It's been a very weird, weird year this year so far. But my sense of urgency is very much there. I'm putting a lot of work into my game. I need to basically find a way of letting it happen, you know, am waiting for that week for it to happen. So maybe this week.
Q. The 6th hole, it played as a long, difficult par-4 in '97, now as a par-5. Can you just talk about the differences in the dynamics that's going to bring to that hole?
ERNIE ELS: I think it's a great change by the USGA. I think there's enough really tough holes out here at Congressional. That green was built for a par-5, and we've had this debate in Europe a couple of weeks ago about holes and greens that are built for 5s and then you change it to a 4, it just doesn't quite mesh with the design. I'm glad they did that. They've got a pond that comes around the green, you've seen it, on the right side, in front of the green, and if that was a 4 and you're coming in with a 3, 4-iron it would be virtually impossible for most of the field to stop it on that green. So playing it as a 5, you've still got the risk-reward. If you hit a really good drive you can try and stop your 5-wood on the green or if you have a long iron, or you can lay it up and make your 4 that way. So I think it's a really good move to do that, because they lengthened so many holes on the back nine. They're virtually like par-5s.
Q. Recently we've seen some really mighty struggles from 54-hole leaders on Sundays at major championships. We watch it but we're not in the caldron. What is different about Sunday in that position that it creates those performances?
ERNIE ELS: Well, I think if you let your mind go and thinking that -- I mean, you're playing for history. Major championships, you're making history. There's not too many people on this planet who have won major championships. When you start thinking that way, you can -- especially if you're going for your first one. We talked about Rory, he wants to win a lot like a lot of other players, but you've got to get through the first one. And I think that's when things can go haywire is when you're really trying to win instead of just letting that picture in your mind just play itself out, basically just letting your game go and just doing what you've done for three days.
There's an art to it in many ways. That's why you've got to take your hat off to guys who have won a lot of majors, because this is in real-time. There's no playbacks, there's no do-overs, there's no second serves. You have to play your shot and then you've got to hit your next shot, and that's what you've got to think of. You can't be thinking about I'm going to make history now and this will get me my first win of seven or eight. I've found myself in that situation, and those are probably the ones that I've screwed up. And the other ones that I won, I just stayed steady and basically stayed the course. There's a very fine line going either way.
Q. You mentioned before the difficulty of starting on a tough par-3. 11 looks like it's going to be pretty brutal, as well. Can you talk about starting on those two holes and how difficult it's going to be not to get down on yourself or for any of the players if they don't start well?
ERNIE ELS: You're talking about the par-3, the 10th? Yeah, exactly. Starting a round on 10, I can't see too many tougher holes to start on, especially off that back tee. You might have to come off the range, hit your putts and then go to your first hole of the day, which could be a 4-iron over water and a bunker at the back. Incredibly difficult start. And then the next hole, the 11th hole, is a par-4, which could be a very good drive, and if you find the fairway you're hitting 4-iron from there to the green. You know, incredibly tough start. So you have to be on right from the go. You know, back in '97 everybody started off the 1st tee and played that way around, so we didn't even have to think about the 10th. So things have changed a little bit. It'll be interesting to see how the guys cope.
Q. Being a former champ here in '97 and you said getting a chance to play on this course quite a bit, do you feel in yourself maybe an added pressure this week, not necessarily to repeat but just to have a great game?
ERNIE ELS: No, not at all. I think if I came in here with a lot of game, it might have been a little different. But coming in with not too many great performances, I'm just trying to have a really good week and play as good as I can. I think, if anything, people will give me a boost this week. Already the members, when I played 10 yesterday, they were going nuts on the left side. So I think it'll be more than a boost than anything. I need all the help I can get.
Q. So much has changed in your life since '97. You have so many more responsibilities now. How do those responsibilities, specifically your work for Autism Speaks, how does that affect your golf and does it motivate you a little bit more?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, it's a little different than back in '97. I wasn't married back then. I was dating Liezl at that time, and obviously, what's it, 14 years later, a lot has happened since then, and our lives have obviously changed, I think mostly for the better, especially marrying Liezl. I couldn't let her get away. And you know, I mean, in many ways I'm still exactly the same person as I was in '97, and in different ways I'm very different. You know, I wouldn't say it's ideal to have autism touch your life, but it is what it is, and we've got a great boy in Ben. He's here this week, you know, and we're dealing with it. We've found that it helps us to really be involved. And we've thrown a lot of our weight into our foundation, Els for Autism, and we've got a lot of work to do, but we're moving in the right direction trying to better our lives and other families' lives. It's a tough thing to deal with. I mean, every week I play, I have at least a dozen people come up to me talking about autism, how they should deal with it. And then we talk about similarities between our families. It's kind of a weird situation, but you deal with it.
Q. A related question: What is the added meaning for you having the U.S. Open end on Father's Day?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, great. My dad is here this week again, and he was with us last year at Pebble when we had the disappointment. But he was here when I won here, so that was great. I've got my father here. Obviously I'm a dad myself, so you know, couldn't be better, especially if the script is right, you know? And even if it's not, it's still great, everybody here.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it and wish you well this week.
The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.