PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Before teeing off on Thursday for his opening round at the 110th U.S. Open, Ernie Els, the picture of serenity whose syrupy action is every bit as tranquil as the sway of Stillwater Cove, had a confession.
“I’m nervous,” he told his manager Chubby Chandler.
If the man with 18 PGA Tour titles, three majors and the most effortless swing known to man is death gripping 9-irons, what hope is there for the rest of us?
It is one of the game’s true ironies, like smiling dolphins in aquariums, the man whose on-course demeanor earned him the nickname “The Big Easy” is anything but. He's been that way for most of his career; he’s simply learned to internalize his emotions better than, say, Pat Perez.
The practice, and a pep talk from Chandler, paid off, and Els shot a 3-under 68 that felt like a 58 and is just two shots off the 36-hole pace set by Graeme McDowell.
“I asked him, what are you nervous about, you’ve got three (majors) already? It’s not life or death,” Chandler said.
For those picking an over-40 league for this week’s Pebble Beach Open Phil Mickelson, who turned 4-0 on Wednesday, was a layup. Els, however, was an easy sleeper.
Els nearly swept the month of March on Tour, winning the WGC-CA Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational and captaining the Lake Nona side to a Tavistock Cup victory. He’s also the preeminent Open expert, non-Tiger Woods division, having won two U.S. Opens and a respectable B Flight Open.
You remember Els, the guy who became a Trivia Pursuit answer for all the wrong reasons the last time the national championship descended on the Monterey Peninsula.
“He won the other golf tournament, didn’t he?” said Chandler, referring to Els’ runner-up showing to Woods in 2000 by 15 strokes at Pebble Beach.
But that was a different time. Before injuries to head and heart and body threatened to end a Hall of Fame career. As for the knee injury, the South African can happily say he’s finally 100 percent, and he’s learned to draw strength from his son, Ben, who was diagnosed with Autism in 2008.
As for a full mental recovery, that remains a work in progress. His 15-stroke supporting role in ’00 was just one of many major misses, most at the hands of Woods. Few in the history of sport has suffered the curse of bad timing like Els.
But his game started showing flashes of old form last year and his Florida Swing success was a good first step.
“Those two wins were massive,” Chandler said. “It was just as exciting for him to win at Doral than it was for Rory (McIlroy) to win at Quail Hollow. You knew Rory was going to win. But Ernie needed that.”
Els is also rested after a hurried spring during which he felt “golfed out.” He also recently reunited with long-time caddie Ricci Roberts. Roberts and former NHL player Dan Quinn are sharing duties this year, but this week in NoCal having Roberts on the bag has been like a warm blanket.
And, of course, he’s back at Pebble Beach, as close to a links layout as one will find in a U.S. Open rota. So much so Els had nearly all of the bounce taken off his sand wedge this week, just like he does at a British Open.
“It's almost links golf on steroids, with the rough and the grass around the bunkers,” Els said. “I really like the setup.”
If Els is scared he didn’t play like it on Friday, posting five birdies on a golf course that doesn’t have that many birdie holes. But then, it’s not a golf course that scares a 40-year-old with a Hall of Fame resume, it’s a fear of failure.
With heart and body healed, the rest is up to Els. Succumb to the scar tissue or learn from it.
“The expectations are there, obviously. And I probably fell victim to that a little bit because I had many – numerous chances of winning majors, which I didn't. I've won three and I look back at it now, I'm pleased to have done that,” said Els, who has finished second or third ten times in a major, including three consecutive runner-ups staring at the 2000 Masters. “I'd like to think I've got quite a few more left.”