ERIN, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Ernie Els celebrated the 20th anniversary of his U.S. Open triumph at Congressional by turning back the clock with a rousing performance in the first round at Erin Hills on Thursday.
The 47-year-old South African, known as ‘The Big Easy’ for his mellifluous swing, reached four-under after 16 holes in the 117th U.S. Open before fading a touch at the end with a pair of closing bogeys to finish the opening round at two-under-par 70.
The U.S. Open often brings out the best in Els, who otherwise has struggled through a difficult season, beset by nagging injuries.
“The way I’ve been scoring has been awful this year. But physically I wasn’t great,” said Els, who has missed more cuts than he has made this year.
“A lot of times I had a couple of niggles, and the lower back, hip and shoulder and knee.
“I feel good this week. I’ve got my trainer Vern here, and I’m feeling a bit better. So I’m feeling really loose. That’s been nice. It’s nice to play pain free.”
Els is accustomed to rising to the occasion at the U.S. championship, having tied for fourth in 2013, finished ninth in 2012 and third two years earlier.
“I felt that some of my game is coming back. My putting’s back and the short game’s pretty good. So I’ve just got to play golf,” he said.
The four-times major winner made his four birdies on the front nine to make the turn in 32, and then ran off seven pars including some challenging par-saves before his late stumble.
Els’ caddie, Cayce Kerr, said the Erin Hills course suited the South African.
“There’s a little bit of a cushion underneath the grass where the club can just slide underneath perfectly so the texture of the grass for him is just fantastic,” Kerr told Reuters. “He loves the way there is a little bit of a cushion.
“As for the greens, he just loves bentgrass greens. He won at Congressional and Oakmont (the 1994 U.S. Open) on this type of surface.
“Courses for horses, and this horse loves this course.”
Editing by Andrew Both