- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa.

Life was so much simpler for Ernie Els in 1994, when he first came to Oakmont — no wife, no kids, no yacht to slip and fall in, just golf. Pressure? Heck, even he didn’t give himself much chance to win the U.S. Open that week. He was, after all, just 24 — a kid with an impressive amateur resume and a handful of European Tour victories but still a virtual unknown in America.

Els caught a glimpse of his earlier self the other day on the Golf Channel, which was airing ‘94 Open highlights. He was amused by the tilt of his cap, the cut of his hair, his nascent swing mechanics and especially his slender frame — 25 pounds more slender.

“I’m a different weight class now,” he says.

Thirteen years later, Els is still a formidable figure in his sport, ranked fifth in the world behind the foursome of Woods, Mickelson, Furyk and Scott. But he hasn’t won a major since the ‘02 British Open, and it has been a decade since he captured the second of his two U.S. Opens (Congressional, ‘97). He also hasn’t won in America in more than three years — a draught that’s partially due to the aforementioned boat mishap, the one that tore up his left knee.

As he fielded questions from the media yesterday, Els could be seen clutching — almost like a security blanket — his putter. There was a certain symbolism to this, he admitted. While he thinks his overall game has “improved a lot” over the years, his short stick has been another story.

“That’s why I won in ‘94,” he said. “I made a ton of putts from inside 10, 12 feet. I’m a better player [now], but I’d like to make more putts. … As you can see, I’m sleeping with my putter. Trying to get a good feel for it.”

Indeed, he has scrapped his conventional putting style in favor of the cross-handed (left-hand-low) technique. It’s not as radical a change as, say, switching to a belly putter, but it was a big deal to the Big Easy. As he put it at the Memorial, “when you’ve putted [one] way all your life and been a pretty good putter, to go the other way. … But the path of the stroke is pretty good, and that’s all that counts, I guess.”

Plenty of golfers would love to be playing the way Els has. He has finished first, second and third in Europe this year and second (Heritage) and third (Nissan) in the U.S. But his standards are quite a bit higher than that — and have been ever since that week at Oakmont in ‘94 when he outdueled Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in an 18-hole playoff. Ernie has been quiet lately, sure, but let’s not forget: His 58 worldwide victories are still, among the current generation, second only to Tiger Woods‘ 67.

Tiger wonders whether folks fully appreciate the severity of Els‘ injury — and the havoc it can wreak, short-term, on a career. “When you rupture an ACL and have reconstructive surgery,” he says, “it’s not something you come back from right away. If it happened to the right leg, he could get away with it, but the left leg is your impact leg, and a lot of torque goes through that area. It takes time to come back from that.”

Being patient, though, is difficult for a golfer who achieved so much so young. Winning a U.S. Open in your mid-20s doesn’t just elevate your status, it alters your world-view, your personal expectations. Ernie Els simply isn’t used to settling for second or third — and at 37, he isn’t ready to. Not at an age when many players are enjoying some of their best years.

So Els returns to Oakmont looking to rediscover whatever it was he found here in ‘94 — his putter, his swagger, his good fortune. And make no mistake, there was an element of luck involved in that victory. Had he not received a questionable free drop from a rules official on the first hole of the final round — after hitting his drive in a bad place — there might have been a two-way playoff for the championship.

Watching the clips of his heroics on the Golf Channel last week, “a lot of good memories came flowing back,” Els said. “I’ve had kind of a rough time the last year or two, and I need a bit of a spark. It’s great coming back here. The people have been great this week. A lot of them have come up with their ‘U.S. Open ‘94’ caps, and I’ve been signing them for them. They were here then — and they’re here again. We’re all a little bit older.”

A golf career has much in common with the U.S. Open — in the sense that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. As he showed at Oakmont and again at Congressional, Els is as good as anybody at putting one foot in front of the other, at not allowing the brutal Open conditions to beat him down, at remembering “that the whole field is going through what you’re going through,” at … enduring.

What Ernie is going through now, this winless stretch in the U.S., has the same kind of universality to it. Which leads you to believe he’ll figure out a solution — cross-handed or otherwise — sooner rather than later. Perhaps even this week, rules officials willing.