A 25-year run in the U.S. Open could end this week at Erin Hills for Ernie Els, a two-time champion who made winning look easy but didn’t win enough to satisfy himself or those in the game who recognized his immense preternatural abilities.
Winner in 1994 and ’97, in just his second and fifth starts in the championship, respectively, Els has remained exempt via his come-from-behind Open Championship victory at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2012. That exemption runs out after this year, meaning he would have to finish among the top 10 this week, go through sectional qualifying, climb in the Official World Golf Ranking from his current position of 401st, or accept a special exemption, which he is not too proud to take – though he won’t ask for one.
“The next year or two would be a nice place to go out,” Els, nicknamed the Big Easy for his big smile and long, fluid swing, said Tuesday, thinking ahead to Shinnecock Hills, on Long Island, next year, or Pebble Beach Golf Links in 2019, places where he has collected three of his 10 top-10 U.S. Open finishes.
“Those old-style courses always caught my eye, and I particularly loved those Northeast setups like Oakmont [site of his ’94 win] and Congressional [where he won in ’97.] I love how hard it always is. Loved hearing guys complaining. That’s the way I liked it.”
Given that sentiment, Erin Hills wouldn’t be considered a prototypical course for him to take an appropriate curtain call. But he already has taken one bow and wave this year, saying goodbye, most likely, to the Masters after 23 starts, with the same Open Championship exemption expiring. After shooting 83-78 on the weekend to end up 53rd at Augusta National Golf Club, Els lamented his inability to win a green jacket, saying, “This tournament is just not for me. I've won a lot of events around the world, but this one just eluded me. We just never got along.”
That was not the case with the U.S. Open, where his power, ball-striking and short game proved effective for golf’s ultimate test.
“I wasn’t the straightest driver, but I didn’t rely solely on that. Other parts of my game were good enough – iron play, short game, pressure putting,” he said, assessing his successful bids. “Whether I play again or not after this year, I’ve had a wonderful run. I had my moments.”
Two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange, who is working this week as an analyst for Fox Sports, is among those surprised that Els didn’t win more U.S. Opens, if not more majors in general. He captured four, adding an Open Championship in 2002 along with his 2012 victory.
“He’s a big, strong guy with such a graceful swing. I always associated him in that way with Sam Snead,” said Strange, who in 1988-89 won consecutive national titles, the last player to successfully defend. “He’s got a swing that will last, and I still think he has some good golf in him. But it has been surprising that he didn’t win more. Because he did things well so easily. It never looked like it was an effort, even though of course it was. But it never looked that way with Ernie.”
Els, 47, played a late practice round Tuesday – mid- to late afternoon is his preferred preparation time at majors – with fellow South Africans Charl Schwartzel, Thomas Aiken and Branden Grace. They posed for a photo after hitting their opening tee shots – in which the Big Easy belted the longest ball. He wore a playful smile as he stood in the middle of a group of players he has influenced as much as Gary Player did previously.
“It’s not just golf but all sport in South Africa he’s had an impact,” said Grace, who was a student in Els’ junior golf development program. “After all that he’s accomplished, particularly things off the course with his foundation, it’s amazing to call him a friend. I’ve played with him many times, and I never stop learning things from him.”
Els has struggled most of this year with a variety of nagging injuries. A lower-back strain and a hip impingement are the most debilitating problems, leading to 10 missed cuts in 15 starts. A top-10 finish this week, of course, would be sweet, but his last top 10 in a PGA Tour event was fifth place at the 2016 Quicken Loans National. It was played at Congressional.
He wouldn’t dismiss his chances of an uprising. Though it won’t be easy.
“I’d have to play a lot better than I have been recently, but things are coming around a bit. I’m starting to feel better,” he said. “Whatever the week brings, I have no complaints. I really don’t.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.