Anything but easy

By Rex HoggardJune 14, 2011, 8:12 pm

BETHESDA, Md. – From the podium on Tuesday it was virtually impossible to comprehend the road Ernie Els has traveled since the last time the national championship was played this side of the Capital Beltway.

“It was a long time ago,” Els sighs when asked to allow his mind to race back some 15 years to a different time, a dramatically different golf course and a vastly different reality. “I'm still exactly the same person as I was in ‘97, and in different ways I'm very different.”

For all we know of the 41-year-old Hall of Famer, all the major heartbreaks and heroics, imagine the crossroads the South African found himself at that sweltering June Sunday when he outdueled Congressional and all comers for his second U.S. Open bottle cap in four years.

To put it in context, Els – who back-ended his Open victory with a two-stroke walkover the next week at Westchester Country Club – had the same number of U.S. Open titles through his 27th birthday as Tiger Woods at a similar age.

In some ways he was Tiger Woods, sans the “Hello world” marketing and mind-boggling margin of victories, before the original co-opted the gig.

“In 1995 at the British Open I was paired with Tiger Woods and Ernie Els and I remember telling my caddie Fluff (Cowan) walking down the first fairway, ‘This threesome is the future of golf and it doesn’t include me,’” Peter Jacobsen said. “Ernie was a far better player than Tiger, but remember Tiger was just 18 years old at the time.”

Jacobsen isn’t a fortuneteller, doesn’t even play one on TV, but the future he envisioned in ‘95 at St. Andrews became inextricably linked for better or worse.

Woods would win 13 more Grand Slams to go with his maiden major at the ‘97 Masters; Els would need 17 more major starts to land No. 3 and become a far-too-frequent foil on Woods’ march to history.

In 2000 Els was the Trivia Pursuit answer: who finished second to Woods at the U.S. Open . . . by 15 strokes? It’s the same year Woods completed the front end of the “Tiger Slam,” while Els was a first-round 74 at the PGA Championship away from carding the “runner-up slam,” having finished as bridesmaid at that season’s Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.

There were more near-misses to Woods at the 2004 Masters and British Open, and the duo’s overtime duel in 2000 at Kapalua was an instant classic for everyone not named Els, who lost that playoff and, some say, much more in that particular TKO.

Asked on Tuesday which of Els’ well-documented losses left the deepest scar, his manager – International Sports Management’s Chubby Chandler – took a stab in the dark, “Couple ones to Tiger were tough.”

If Els was atop the mountain in 1997 following his Open repeat it’s not entirely unfair to say he spent much of the remainder of his career gazing up at the summit from the last base camp.

In sport the most lasting wounds are self-inflicted, unforced errors at inopportune times that lead to dark places and even darker questions. Els’ perennial status as an also-ran was as close to an excused absence as one can get.

Truth is, if Els is guilty of anything it is having been born into an era that would be defined by one man.

“He’s won 61 times and you only remember the ones he’s lost,” Chandler said. “Imagine if he had won a couple of those, he would have won 90 events.”

Yet for Els, the “what if” game is akin to occupational kryptonite. Most players are paralyzed by fear or the prospect of greatness, but the “Big Easy”’s blind spots rest in shadowy memories.

The 54-hole leader in three of the last four majors has failed to close the deal and Els was asked on Tuesday about the unique demands of a Grand Slam Sunday. “I’m probably the best guy to ask,” he offered in a moment of clarity.

The old coaches cliché remains: did Els lose all those close calls or were they simply won by someone else? Not that it matters to Els.

Even last year’s near miss at Pebble Beach, a tie for third that was Els’ eighth top-10 at the U.S. Open, was less a question of execution than it was simply another inexplicably unhappy ending.

“I played such wonderful golf from tee to green,” said Els, who finished two strokes behind Graeme McDowell after a closing-nine 40. “I really found my swing that week, and I wasn't even that bad on the greens. It's just that back nine, it seems like I just kept missing inside 8 feet almost on every hole, and I was really, really disappointed after that.”

But then you don’t get fitted for that many silver medals without developing some level of tolerance to heartbreak’s toxic impact. In this, last month’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony was likely a cathartic exercise for Els, putting in context a career defined in many ways by defeat but rooted in largely stellar play.

From the stage at the World Golf Village even his own resume must have sounded strangely unfamiliar: three majors, 18 Tour titles, 44 international victories, six Presidents Cup appearances and one of just 15 players to have been ranked No. 1 in world.

It may not have added up to whatever lofty goals were racing around his young mind looking down on the pack on June 15, 1997, but for Els, who has been known to show up at golf courses in shorts and flip flops, a verse from the Jimmy Buffett classic, “He went to Paris” must have seemed apropos: “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I had a good life all the way.”

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

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Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

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Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”

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Reed's major record now a highlight, not hindrance

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 2:46 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – The narrative surrounding Patrick Reed used to be that he could play well in the Ryder Cup but not the majors.

So much for that.

Reed didn’t record a top-10 in his first 15 starts in a major, but he took the next step in his career by tying for second at the 2017 PGA Championship. He followed that up with a breakthrough victory at the Masters, then finished fourth at the U.S. Open after a closing 68.

He’s the only player with three consecutive top-4s in the majors.

What’s the difference now?

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“The biggest thing is I treat them like they’re normal events,” he said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I’ve always gone into majors and put too much pressure on myself, having to go play well, having to do this or that. Now I go in there and try to play golf and keep in the mindset of, Hey, it’s just another day on the golf course. Let’s just go play.

“I’ve been able to stay in that mindset the past three, and I’ve played pretty well in all three of them.”

Reed’s record in the year’s third major has been hit or miss – a pair of top-20s and two missed cuts – but he says he’s a better links player now than when he began his career. It took the native Texan a while to embrace the creativity required here and also to comprehend the absurd distances he can hit the ball with the proper wind, conditions and bounce.

“I’m sort of accepting it,” he said. “I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with doing it. It’s come a little bit easier, especially down the stretch in tournament play.”