ERIN, Wis. – It’s been 20 years since Ernie Els won his second of two U.S. Open titles. His father, Neels, reminded him of that Thursday morning, sending the Big Easy a photo of their family on the final green at Congressional.
“We both said that it’s crazy that 20 years has gone by so quickly,” Els said. “In many ways, it feels like yesterday. In other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago.”
Now 47, Els is playing what could be his final U.S. Open this week. It’s the last year of the five-year exemption he received for winning the 2012 Open Championship. Two months after saying goodbye to the Masters after 23 tries, he is prepared for what might be another farewell tour at the Open.
That part hasn’t even really crossed his mind, and that’s to be expected. It has been an “awful” season; in his past 17 starts, he has 11 missed cuts, one withdrawal and just one finish better than 35th. His age has also caught up with him, as he battled through lower back, hip, shoulder and knee injuries.
“You try to still play the schedule that I’ve played for 20-something years, but it gets tough to go out there and play,” he said. “You can’t quite do what you have done or are trying to do because of some kind of little niggle. It gets frustrating.”
Indeed, his year has been so rough that he wasn’t even terribly disappointed by his bogey-bogey finish to his opening round Thursday at Erin Hills. When he signed his card for a 2-under 70, he was tied for 10th, five shots back of Rickie Fowler.
Erin Hills wouldn’t seem to be an ideal venue for Els. At 7,845 yards, it is a massive ballpark, and the rolling hills and long walks from green to tee are physically taxing for even the fit youngsters he’s competing against. In a practice round, Els marveled at the power displayed by amateur Cameron Champ, who blasted 340-yard drives on seemingly every hole. Els never possessed that much firepower during his Hall of Fame career, but he was always among the game’s biggest hitters. Now, he is struggling to keep up with the modern player and the modern courses that allow the bombers to freewheel it off the tee.
“These types of golf courses might be the future,” he said.
And that leaves Els in an awkward place, as he tries to remain competitive, to remain relevant, while also looking ahead to the next chapter of his life. In 2015, he received the Tour’s Payne Stewart Award, given to the Tour pro who best demonstrates sportsmanship and character. For his work with the Els for Autism Foundation, he was recently named as one of four finalists for the Sports Humanitarian of the Year Award. Soon, that will be his primary focus.
How much game does he have left? The answer could come this week. To make another Open appearance next year, Els must finish in the top 10, otherwise the two-time champion will need to go through sectional qualifying like the rest of the dreamers.
“Like I said at the Masters: 23 (appearances) there, 25 here, it would be nice to keep going, but if not, it’s also fine,” he said. “I’ve had a good time.”