A winner of two Open Championships, Els knows a thing or two about ensuring victory.
Ernie Els – How To Win The Open
You can trust a two-time Open Championship winner to sum up what it takes to be the last man standing at golf’s oldest and most prestigious championship. Ask Ernie Els and the South African great laughs and almost rolls his eyes.
“Wow, where do I start? There is a lot going on at The Open,” Els tells Golf Monthly.
“The weather conditions are just something else. You’re trying to win a Major and compete with the best players in the world on a links course at the same time. Links golf is not only different from the other Majors, but it’s different from England to Scotland, even.”
“A lot going on” is an accurate way to describe The Open. There was certainly a lot going on when Els lifted his first Claret Jug – and third Major trophy – at the 2002 Open at Muirfield. There were so many layers to the 131st Open that Els takes a moment when asked to choose the defining moments.
After a pause, he has an answer. Namely, the pivotal third round on Saturday. Tiger Woods was washed out of contention while Els roared to life. Woods had become the first golfer since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to win The Masters and US Open within the same year, securing the first two legs of the Grand Slam. He was in contention through two rounds at Muirfield, sitting just two shots back of Els, Padraig Harrington, Shigeki Maruyama, Bob Tway and Duffy Waldorf in a share of the 36-hole lead. But in truly disastrous weather on Saturday, Woods shot what was then the worst round of his career: a ten-over-par 81 in rain and freezing cold.
“There is a lot of preparation that goes into The Open, but the luck of the draw plays a huge part,” Els says. “I survived Saturday in 2002; I got away with it a little bit. We played in better conditions and I made a couple of birdies to make a respectable [one-over] 72.
“On Sunday, I was really in control until I screwed up on 16,” Els adds about his double-bogey at the par 3. “Then I got into a play-off with a couple of Aussie guys [Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington] and Thomas Levet.”
To date, it is the only four-man play-off in Major history. The Australians were eliminated before Levet found a fairway bunker on the first sudden-death hole, while Els saved par to win.
“It was a huge play-off,” the South African recalls.
A special feeling Els won the US Open twice, in 1994 and 1997, at Oakmont and Congressional. They are among two of American golf’s most celebrated championship venues and winning the US Open twice signifies a great golfer who was able to master the sport’s toughest test of skill. But Els, now 49, says he still hangs his hat on his dual Open Championship titles.
“Winning The Open is still such a great feeling, because it is the oldest championship of the lot,” says Els, who has also finished Open runner-up three times and been placed third on two occasions. “It has the most history. To be able to play it frequently in Scotland, where they played the game right from its beginnings, makes it so much more special.”
Open Champions are celebrated for their ability to stay patient and roll with the punches dealt by Mother Nature and the draw. More than the other three Majors, The Open requires good fortune in addition to immense skill.
“You have to be able to get yourself in a position that allows you to have a chance on Sunday, and then the weather has to help you,” says Els. “A lot of the time, you can get to Sunday and be four or five behind, but if the weather is too good, it is too tough to make up ground. You need bad weather if you’re behind.
“If you’re to win The Open, you need a bit of help. When Louis [Oosthuizen] won in 2010 [at St Andrews], he played twice before the wind blew in the first two rounds. Obviously, he did what he needed to do, but he was in such a better position and we all got blown off the golf course a couple of hours later.”
Els casts his mind back to The Open at Carnoustie in 1999, known for what many call the biggest choke in the history of golf. Paul Lawrie started the final round ten shots back of 54-hole leader Jean Van de Velde. But Lawrie won his only Major in a play-off over Van de Velde and Justin Leonard, moments after the Frenchman triple-bogeyed the last hole in what has become one of the most infamous scenes in golf – and sport for that matter.
“When it’s blowing and raining at The Open on a Sunday, that is where it really gets interesting,” says Els. “We have seen that with Paul Lawrie winning over Jean Van de Velde; we’ve seen that with myself over Adam Scott in 2012… there have been many comebacks from a lot of shots behind the lead.”
Scott, the Australian who counts Els as a friend and mentor, collapsed spectacularly in 2012 at Royal Lytham & St Annes. Scott was the 54-hole leader and when he birdied the 14th hole on Sunday was four strokes ahead with four to play. But he made four bogeys to hand victory to Els.
Els, who played two groups ahead of Scott on Sunday, birdied the 18th to shoot 68 and post the clubhouse lead at seven-under-par. “I just had a feeling that it was going to be tough for some of those guys on the leaderboard to win because they were going for their first Major,” Els recalls. “Especially with Scotty and Brandt Snedeker and the other guys.
“But still, I was so fortunate, or lucky… whatever you want to call it. I shot four-under on the back nine. The pivotal thing was playing a solid back nine and not making any mistakes.”
Els is hopeful that at Royal Portrush this year he is among those seasoned veterans whom the golf gods seem to smile down upon every few years at The Open – like Tom Watson in 2009 at Turnberry.
But, at the age of 49, Els is realistic. More than anything, he is just looking forward to The Open Championship crowds, who have always treated The Big Easy like one of their own. Tickets to the 148th Open sold out more than 12 months in advance, largely due to the fact it has not been held at Royal Portrush – or Northern Ireland in general – since 1951.
“I’ve played Portrush once… 20 years ago,” Els laughs. “So I haven’t seen the new holes they built, but I hear from Darren Clarke and the guys those holes are great. And then we are going to have record crowds. You thought 2006 at Royal Liverpool was big – I think Portrush is going to be bigger.”
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