Els No Lock at Shinnecock

By Mercer BaggsJune 16, 2004, 4:00 pm
Ernie Els is playing as well as any man at the moment. The U.S. Open is this week. Ernie Els is a two-time U.S. Open champion. The U.S. Open is being played at Shinnecock Hills, a links-style layout that could play like a British Open. Ernie Els is a British Open champion. Ernie Els will win the U.S. Open.
Given the facts, its a logical conclusion to derive. And certainly he will be among the four betting favorites, along with Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson.
Els, however, is at a bit of a disadvantage this week. It has nothing to do with his playing six consecutive tournaments. Adrenaline alone should carry him through till Sunday evening ' and Monday, if necessary.
No, its not physical or mental exhaustion that Els will have to overcome this week. Its his mental outlook.
Els echoes the statements of 155 others when he raves about the course, its conditioning and the major undertaking it presents.
But this course, this type of U.S. Open layout, doesnt fit Els eye.
Ive always enjoyed U.S. Opens on tree-lined courses, Els said. Its just the way I grew up. I saw Augusta in a certain way and I saw the British Open in a certain way and then obviously the U.S. Open.
I like a tree-lined course just for the look of it.
The way a course looks is important to professional golfers. It can relax them; boost their confidence ' if they like what they see. If not, it can make them uncomfortable; put them behind the 8-ball before even hitting a shot.
Westchester suits Ernies eye. So does Bay Hill. And Royal Melbourne and Muirfield Village and Wentworth and Augusta National, and most U.S. Open venues. He plays well on these courses because he feels at home.
Your eye just sees shots more natural. You don't have to manufacture anything in your game. At certain golf courses you play, it is easier and other guys don't see what you see. I think that's where you get a major advantage, Els said.
Professional golfers are a mental sort. The slightest bit of confidence can trigger wonderful accomplishment. A shrivel of uneasiness can snowball from doubt to disaster.
Els has a sports psychologist to try and provide the former, while deterring the latter.
His off-course mental sessions with Jos Vanstiphout may prove equally important this week to his on-course preparation in practice rounds.
Theres not a competitive player around, Tiger included, who has a better U.S. Open record than Els. He has a pair of victories, in 1994 and 97, to go along with four other top-7 finishes, including a tie for fifth last year at Olympia Fields.
He also has a pair of missed cuts among those 11 career starts. The first early exit just happened to come at Shinnecock in 95.
I never really felt comfortable on that course, he said earlier in the year of Shinnecock. I defended that week and I wasnt on my game.
As the defending champion in 95, Els played alongside the reigning British Open champion, Nick Price, and the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, one Tiger Woods, who was still attending Stanford.
That was a weird tournament, Els said. He (Woods) wasnt playing well, either. I think he was going through exams or something, and Pricey was the only one that was really playing well.
Tiger hurt his wrist the second day on the sixth hole, so he left the course and we played a two-ball, so it was kind of a weird U.S. Open.
The next time the USGA played its National Championship outside of its traditional U.S. Open landscape of trees and tall rough was 1999 at Pinehurst. That was missed cut No. 2.
He did tie for second in 2000 at Pebble Beach, which is a positive; seeing as he has only played the AT&T Pro-Am one time in his career, its not as if he is in his ultimate comfort zone on the Monterey Peninsula. And Pebble Beach may be the closest U.S. Open venue to compare to Shinnecock Hills.
Els entered the 95 Open having won the Byron Nelson about a month before. But he said that he kind of lost my game going into that tournament (the Open).
This year, Els is playing superbly entering the seasons second major -- and he's done a great job of putting the disappointment from major No. 1 behind him. In the last five weeks, he has one victory and three more top-7 finishes; he also finished tied for third at the MCI Heritage, the week following his runner-up finish to Phil Mickelson at the Masters. Hes hoping that he can look past the visual distress he sees at Shinnecock and focus on his form.
I think my game is a lot better than it was back then, Els said. Obviously, I can only play better (than in 95).
I mean, Ive got nothing to lose. Ive won two of them.
This marks the conclusion to an exhausting six-week stretch of competitive play for Els. After an emotional and brilliant win at the Memorial he said he was 'just trying to play it cool' last week at the Buick Classic, where he tied for 16th. He used the event to 'get ready for this week.'
He's continued to 'play it cool' thus far this week. Els, who is staying in Manhattan and is being flown by helicopter to the course each day, didn't practice Monday, instead opting to hang around NYC. He played 18 holes Tuesday and will do the same Wednesday. And outside of a little practice, he'll just be working on his mental frame of mind -- trying to get a good visual of Shinnecock Hills before Thursday.
'I feel very good. I feel fresh, for me,' he said. 'So I know I'm going to have a nice break after this tournament, so you might as well go out with a bang.'
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