PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It doesn’t feel like Ernie Els has been playing in U.S. Opens for nearly two decades.
Yet, this week’s Open is the 18th straight for Els, the longest consecutive streak of any player in the field, one ahead of Phil Mickelson and two better than Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh.
But other than his second place finish 15 shots back of Woods in 2000 at Pebble Beach, the Open has become just another week for Els. While most players would be thrilled with 10 top-25 finishes in 17 U.S. Open starts entering this week, Els’ opinion of his U.S. Open performances is always tempered by the titles he won in 1994 and ’97 that instantly raised his own expectations.
Major championships – and U.S. Open titles in general – went from being a great accomplishment, to an expected result.
“(In) 2000 came here, and finished second, although I was never really in the ball game. And I haven’t really done too much since then. I might have had a couple of top-10s or top-5s since then, but not really something really spectacular,” Els said. “You know, I had a great start to my major campaign. And as I say, I’ve won two, won another Open Championship, but I haven’t really capitalized on the chances I’ve had.”
Els has played well this season at times, inconsistently at others. He won back-to-back titles at Doral and Bay Hill in March, but wasn’t able to translate that into a strong showing at The Masters, where Els finished in a tie for 18th. Els has played only three times since Augusta – missing the cut twice, sandwiched around a third place showing at the Texas Open.
When Els arrived at Pebble Beach on Sunday, it was his first visit since the 2000 Open, he said. His preparation for this week included a trip to Pine Valley with his dad and a practice round at Pebble when he arrived on the Monterey Peninsula.
“As a venue I don’t think you can get a better venue any place in the world,” Els said. “So it’s great to be back.”
CHILL IN THE AIR: It was chilly enough as Tiger Woods played his practice round on Tuesday. As he waited for two groups ahead of him on the 10th tee, it got even cooler.
The gallery parted, and Tom Watson stepped onto the tee.
Watson made small talk with some of the players, the gallery and Roger Maltbie, but made no effort to speak to Woods, who was sitting on the bench. Woods never made eye contact with Watson or any attempt to speak to him.
Watson was critical of Woods earlier this year, saying that along with needing to show more humility after his downfall, he needed to clean up his language on the course.
Both are U.S. Open champions at Pebble Beach and Stanford alumni.
CAN’T LET IT GO: Though they’re covering golf, not soccer, members of the British media at Pebble Beach were still focusing on the big news of the week in their country: The goal Robert Green gave up in a 1-1 tie against the United States at the World Cup on Saturday.
It has been widely regarded as one of the worst goals ever allowed, and two British newspapers used the headline “Hand of Clod” – a riff on the famous “Hand of God” goal by Diego Maradona in 1986 that ousted England from the World Cup.
British reporters asked for Lee Westwood’s take: “Mistakes happen,” he said. “I’ve made them on the golf course, at spectacular times. You’re not trying to do it, it’s just one of those things.”
And Tiger Woods: “It was a gift. Certainly was a gift. That was a nice little gift on the goal there,” Woods said. “I hope he gets a chance to play and is not finished.”
As for the of vuvuzelas that have become the soundtrack of the tournament, Els said he wouldn’t mind hearing the constant buzz at the U.S. Open.
Well, maybe just during the practice rounds.
“I think it’d be cool,” the South Africa native said. “(But) I don’t think the USGA would ever allow it on the grounds. Maybe practice rounds, that would give a bit of more spirit to things. Those things are really loud, though.”
Els said he’s hoping to make it back to South Africa for a game later in the tournament and was impressed by the performance of his home country in their 1-1 tie against Mexico to open the tournament.
“With all the noise going on there, I think it’s a real great atmosphere for the players down there,” he said.
HARRINGTON SURGERY: Former British Open champion Padraig Harrington arrived at the U.S. Open just three weeks after undergoing minor knee surgery.
Harrington, who missed the cut at last year’s Open and was in a tie for fifth in the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach, said his knee has responded well to the eight-hour surgery.
“It’s responded well, I’m comfortable,” Harrington said. “While it needs a certain amount of minding and I have to look after it, it’s not posing any problem to me playing golf.”
Harrington has made 11 PGA Tour starts this season with his best finish a tie for third at the CA Championships. He finished in a tie for 16th at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am earlier this year.