ERIN, Wis. – In 1993, a 23-year-old Ernie Els came to Baltusrol Golf Club for his first U.S. Open with a resume that included no victories on the PGA or European tours but seven triumphs in his native South Africa.
At 4 over through 36 holes, Els found himself 10 shots behind eventual winner Lee Janzen. Els displayed top form in the final two rounds, shooting 68-67 for the lowest weekend score. The T-7 finish set Els on a path that would lead to the World Golf Hall of Fame. The next month, Els tied for sixth in the British Open in a prelude to his first of two U.S. Open victories, in 1994 via playoff against Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club.
The 6-foot-3-inch blond-haired “Big Easy” would win 19 times on the PGA Tour and 24 on the European Tour, including two British Opens.
Now 47, Els finds that his days of playing for the U.S. Open trophy might be over, and his five-year exemption for winning the 2012 British Open expires this year.
Moments after he shot 2-over 74 Sunday for a 7-over 295 total and T-55 finish at Erin Hills, Els reflected on the qualities for his success in 25 years of playing the U.S. Open.
“I think it's because of iron play and short-game imagination,” Els said. “You’ve got to have that at the U.S. Open, and I think I've got that just naturally.”
Els owns 10 top-10 finishes in the U.S. Open, notably his 1994 and ’97 titles. He also played most of his career during the heyday of Tiger Woods, who racked up 14 major championships – including three U.S. Opens – from 1997 through 2008.
“I played with a kid today that was almost not born (when I won my first Open),” said Els, noting 26-year-old Tyler Light. “You like to move forward. I'll tell you, when I stop playing all these majors, then it's really going to seep in. Then you start looking at what you've done. I'm not quite there yet, but it's coming.
“If I get a nod or something miraculous happens in the next six months, I mean, I would love to continue, but if it doesn't happen it's been 25 years,” Els said philosophically. “I mean, how many guys can say they have played in 25 U.S. Opens? So, it's been good.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli