Ernie Els, twice a U.S. Open champion, doesn’t carry many expectations into this week’s 119th U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Which is OK, really. He didn’t expect to be here. But the USGA awarded Els a special exemption for a second year in a row, and he will play in his 27th U.S. Open at a site where he previously finished second in 2000 and third in 2010. Making the occasion more special is that Els’ 21-year-old nephew, Jovan Rebula, is in the field, courtesy of his victory in the 2018 Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen, in Scotland.
“I would never in my wildest dreams have thought that I'd still be playing, and, two, he'd be playing with me at a U.S. Open. It's fantastic,” said Els, who is four months shy of his 50th birthday. “I wish my sister and family could have been here to see it. But I'm glad to be keeping him company.”
Known as the Big Easy, Els won U.S. Open titles in 1994 at Oakmont, in just his second appearance, and in 1997 at Congressional. His only other top-3 finishes have come here on the Monterey Peninsula, so the Hall of Famer from South Africa certainly must feel like this would be an appropriate place to end a run that began with a T-7 debut in 1993 at Baltusrol.
“I've had a great time out here. It's been quite a long time out here,” said Els, who will serve as captain of the International Team in the Presidents Cup in December in Melbourne, Australia. “And I'll still play some of the events that I'm the past champion of, but I think I'm going to transition well onto the other side and play some golf on the Champions Tour and go see some of my old friends.
“And I can be competitive again. That's why I play the game. I love to compete. When your time is up, your time is up, and you can move on. But it doesn't say that I won't be able to compete in certain events which I'm looking forward to.”
Els, ranked 348th in the world, has played decently this year, though he’s hit a rut of late and had to withdraw from his last start at the Memorial Tournament with a sore back. He arrives not sure what kind of game he’ll bring to one of his favorite U.S. Open layouts.
“If you're ever going to have a blueprint on a U.S. Open, this is the one. It's just been fantastic to have played here in the past.”
And the future? “Listen, I'm working on my game,” said Els, who has more than 50 worldwide titles, including 19 on the PGA Tour. “I've been here since Saturday. I love the place. There's a certain way to play the course, I feel, and I'm finding my way to play certain holes the same way I have.
“And my swing is coming around. My back feels better. My expectations are pretty low, but the hope is there. I want to have a good week, obviously. I'm coming to the end of my U.S. Open reign as a player. It's been 27 great years. I would like to say I enjoyed it most of the time, but it's tough to enjoy some U.S. Open golf courses. But I've had a great time. I've had some great performances out here. I just want to have a great week in my own way.”
As for his nephew, who attends Auburn University, Els just wants to see him get in four rounds. In August, Rebula competed in the U.S. Amateur here, but missed out on advancing to match play.
“If he can make the cut, it will be great, give him a lot of confidence,” said Els, who played a practice round with his nephew. “Eventually he wants to become a professional golfer. And this is a great learning ground, a great place for him to learn and see what it's all about. It's a good family bonding at a U.S. Open.”
Els is thankful that his bonds to the USGA provided him one more opportunity to compete in a U.S. Open, which will be his 103rd start in a major championship. As recently as 2013 he finished T-4 and he has made the cut in 20 of his 26 appearances.
“I was surprised. The USGA gave me a special exemption last year and this year again. That's much appreciated,” Els said with a grin. “I guess I did something right for the USGA to give me an exemption twice.
“There's no more special place than Pebble Beach. To play a U.S. Open here with my nephew in the field, it's just unbelievably special. And as time goes on, we will keep looking back to this week, if it's my last one. It's just wonderful that they've given me that opportunity to play, and I'm going to make the most of it.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to usopen.com and usga.org.