2017-06-15 21:45:03
On Golf: Struggling Ernie Els Knows Picture Can Change ‘Like That’

21:45, June 15 37 0

ERIN, Wis. — Ernie Els’s results the past several months had not exactly filled him with self-belief heading into his 25th United States Open. But on Thursday morning, Els’s father sent him a photograph that put him in a positive frame of mind before his opening round at Erin Hills Golf Club.

Taken 20 years earlier, the image showed Els; his wife, Liezl; and his parents posing with the United States Open trophy that he won at Congressional Country Club. Els said he stared at the photograph and marveled at the player he was then, the person he is now and how quickly two decades have flown by.

“Gone like that,” Els said, snapping his fingers.

He was talking about time, but it also could have been a reference to his momentum on the rolling 7,741-yard course that is hosting this event for the first time. Els played the first nine holes in four-under par and was on a good hike unspoiled until the final 1,146 yards: the par-4 17th and the par-5 18th. He bogeyed both for a round of two-under 70.

Els nearly made a 36-foot putt for par at 18, his attempt coming so close that he bent his knees as if to help the ball curl in. “All in all, I’ve got to be happy,” said Els, who was five strokes off the lead, held by his South Florida neighbor Rickie Fowler. “I know Rickie played a great round, but through experience you know that the field’s coming, the worst part. So we’ll see where it goes.”

Els, 47, a four-time major winner with 47 global victories, is getting around the course on guile, because, to hear him talk, his body parts are coming unglued.

“Lower back, hip, shoulder and knee,” Els said, listing his physical infirmities. “It’s really the first year that I’ve got experience with that, so it’s kind of new.”

So is this: nine missed cuts, including seven in a row, and no finishes inside the top 30 in 15 starts in the tour’s 2016-17 wraparound season. Els, who collected his last major title at the 2012 British Open, is playing here in the final year of a five-year exemption that was part of his British Open victory spoils. Finding himself in the same position at the Masters in April, Els pressed and played badly on the weekend after a promising start of par 72.

The top 10 finishers, plus ties, will earn invitations to next year’s United States Open at Shinnecock Hills in Tuckahoe, N.Y., but Els learned his lesson at the Masters. “It’s not really on my mind,” he said, adding: “It would be nice to keep going, but if not, it’s also fine. I’ve had a good time.”

Els’s 19 PGA Tour victories include a win at the Memorial Tournament, which he likes to play every year to fine-tune his game for the United States Open. He skipped the event this year because the high-school graduation of his first child — his daughter, Samantha — coincided with the tournament.

His daughter is leaving home at summer’s end to attend Stanford. So Els could relate to the decision by Phil Mickelson to skip this major to attend the high school graduation ceremony in California of his oldest daughter, who is headed across the country to attend Brown.

Mickelson, 46, officially withdrew Thursday morning when the radar showed no monstrous blob of bad weather that could push back his afternoon tee time and enable him to fly here in time to play after his daughter’s ceremony.

“That’s very understandable,” Els said of Mickelson’s decision. “We’re all parents, and you don’t want to miss that day. It’s almost more a parent day than a student day. You take the pictures and, I won’t say I’m crying, but, you know, you get emotional. High school is done, and the next phase starts.”

The 2012 British Open was also Els’s last victory, and in the years since, he has received numerous awards: for his success as a golfer and his tireless work, in lock step with his wife, as an advocate for his son, Ben, and others like him with autism spectrum disorder. Most recently, Els has been recognized as a finalist for ESPN’s Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian of the Year Award, along with Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano and Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson. The award will be presented next month in Los Angeles.

The recognition is nice, but Els, who spent nine weeks as the world No. 1 in 1997 and 1998, isn’t ready to start the next phase of his career. He does not want to become a ceremonial golfer. “I like to compete,” he said. “It hasn’t been really good the last year or so, but I still want to be out there with the guys and play.”

By play he meant grind. “When it gets kind of tough, you’ve got to grind it out,” said Els, who used his par-saving 7-foot putt at the par-3 13th as an example. With a twinkle in his eye, he said, “You’ve just got to kind of grit your teeth and try to make those par putts.”

Els arrived here, surveyed the links-like layout that calls to mind an inland course in Britain, and his step grew lighter. “I felt good from the moment I walked through the gates here and on the course,” said Els, who views the layout as a hybrid of the United States Open and British Open courses where he has experienced his greatest successes.

“So there are a lot of positives out there,” he said, “and I’m trying to feed off of that.”