- Associated Press - Monday, August 6, 2012

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (AP) - Ernie Els returns to Kiawah Island for the PGA Championship as a major champion, the same status he carried the last time he was there.

He was the U.S. Open winner in 1997, earning his second major at age 27. He came here that fall to represent South Africa in the World Cup. The rest week was a blur. He vaguely remembers the Ocean Course, only that it was hard.

“I think they designed that course for match play,” he said with a grin.

So much has transpired between then and now. That `97 U.S. Open win came right after 21-year-old Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 shots. Golf looked like it might have a rivalry to last a generation, only it didn’t pan out that way.

Els was runner-up in three consecutive majors in 2000, two of them to Woods by a combined 23 shots. The Big Easy finally added another major in 2002 at the British Open, and he had a chance to win all of them in 2004 in a most empty season.

Right when it looked as though his best was behind him, or that he had too many demons from so many close calls, he won the British Open last month in a most shocking manner. Els didn’t realize how fortunate he was until he received DVDs of his win at Royal Lytham & St Annes. He watched the final hour, when Adam Scott made bogey on the last four holes and lost a four-shot lead.

Els flew home to London that night after the Open. Then, he was off to Canada to live up to a sponsor’s obligation. He missed the cut in Canada, threw out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, headed to Firestone for a World Golf Championship and didn’t break par until Saturday.

He was all smiles that day, not so much because of his 68, but because of the realization that, yes, he was the Open champion.

“I can’t tell you how special it is,” Els said. “It’s just hit me now. I’ve been reading up on what you guys have been writing, but it’s been two weeks. Last week was a joke. The Canadians ran me around like you can’t believe. But now, I’m breathing again. It’s really setting in.”

The replay he watched carried some bittersweet moments, mainly for Scott.

“I did play some good golf,” said Els, who had a 32 on the back nine. “I didn’t make any mistakes on the back nine. But Scotty’s lipout on 16, that thing should have been in. That 17th hole, there’s no way you can hit it left. And the tee shot on 18. I was very fortunate.”

Such is golf, and Els knows it.

He can think back to 1995 at Riviera in the PGA Championship, which was his to win until he stumbled in the final round. Steve Elkington wound up winning in a playoff over Montgomerie. Does Elkington realize how fortunate he was to win?

Els offered that easy smile.

“He’s Australian,” he said. “And Scotty’s my buddy.”

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