Ernie Els Pre-Championship
JOE GOODE: Once again, we’re pleased to be joined by two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, whose appearance this week at Merion will mark his 21st start in U.S. Open competition. Thanks for being with us this morning. You played Merion two years ago in a sponsor‑related event. How did you find the course then and how does it compare, given its classic layout, in a major like the U.S. Open?
ERNIE ELS: Well, it was wet then and it’s wet now again. So it seems like it gets a lot of rain.
I just love the idea of the U.S. Open coming here. I didn’t get to watch the ’81 or ‘71 U.S Opens. But I played the course in an SAP tournament. The SAP headquarters are down the road. In ‘04 and ‘05 we had two golf days here. They kind of run you around a little bit. Quite a few groups that we played with. I didn’t get to play the holes in succession, but I played most of the holes around the course.
I actually came up here on Saturday. The course was closed then, again. But I got to play a lot of holes yesterday and really got a really good feel for Merion. There’s quite a few blind holes, blind tee shots out there where you’ve really got to get your lines. I got that out of the way. I kind of got the flow of the course a little bit. Just a wonderful historic venue. And it’s just great to be here. I think all the players feel the same way.
Q. I wanted to ask you about your caddie. And how that started and I guess how good he is. We’re talking about Dan Quinn?
ERNIE ELS: Oh, Dan. He is a good friend of mine. I met him when we moved down to Palm Beach, to Jupiter. And we played a lot of golf together. He loves the game and he’s a huge competitor, as you can well imagine, playing in the hockey league for such a long time. He loves the game. He loves – I don’t know if he loves my company all the time, but he’s a good friend. I think we’re having a good time. We haven’t quite found our rhythm this year yet. But we’ve had some really good finishes. We won the Grand Slam together, I think, two years ago. And finished second at the HSBC Champions tournament in Asia. So we’ve had some good finishes, we would like to put a major on there.
Q. Can you just talk about how the course played yesterday? You had a good bit of rain on Friday and Saturday. And what do you expect if it does remain soft? Is the scoring going to be easier? How will it play differently than the way they’d like it?
ERNIE ELS: Yesterday it was beautiful. It was just starting to dry out. The greens were getting a little bit firmer. The surfaces are just unbelievable. The fairways were still quite wet. I guess they couldn’t get the rollers on the fairways. But the fairways are also getting a little bit firmer. But they’re still soft. After the rain this morning, it’s going to be very sloppy now. You’re not going to see a firm U.S. Open this year, I’m sorry. I don’t care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it’s not going to dry up.
We’re going to have a soft golf course this week all week. It means that if you’re on your game you’re going to have a lot of birdie putts. There’s quite a few par‑4s where you’ve just got to put it in the fairway. You can put it in the fairway with an iron, from a 5‑iron for a 3‑iron, just putting it into play, and then you’ve got quite a short second shot.
I can see pin placements are going to be quite tough to protect the course. You’re going to see a lot more birdies than ever at U.S. Open venues. But the finish is still very strong. The par‑3s are very, very strong. And there’s some par‑4s; 5 and 6, obviously 18 and 14 is a very strong hole. So there’s some really strong par‑4s, but then you’ve got some birdie chances. I should say the par‑3s are going to be tough.
Q. Have you been able to keep an eye on what’s happening with Mr. Mandela, and what sort of relationship do you have with him?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, South Africans, we’re obviously very concerned about President Mandela. He’s 94 years old now. He’s almost on to his 95th birthday, and he’s been quite ill for a while now. So we’re just hoping for the best. I haven’t seen him for quite a few years now. I haven’t seen him for probably seven or eight years now. But we’ve had always a great relationship.
When I won a lot of tournaments in the ‘90s and early part of the 2000s we spoke a lot on the telephone. He always felt proud of what the sporting athletes out of South Africa did for the country, you know, winning worldwide events. He always felt very proud of that. Yeah, through that instance we had a really nice relationship.
We’ll just – we’re hoping for the best. Whatever outcome that might be. I just want him to be well.
Q. Two-part question, first, you talked about how soft the course is. Is it possible we could see a 62 this week? Secondly, 18, Mike Davis has talked about the 18th here being one of the hardest and best finishing holes at a U.S. Open. Where do you see 18 in terms of all the Opens you played?
ERNIE ELS: Well, 62? Anything can happen. I don’t want to feel against anything. But I’m not going to say anybody is going to shoot a 62 at a U.S. Open. As I say, you’ve got more birdie opportunities than ever. So guys who have never played a U.S. Open, they might be lulled into, hey, this is not all that bad. I’m playing my 21st U.S. Open, so I’ve seen a lot of trouble out there. But through my careers, this is the one where you can get on a run. You can make some 3’s. That’s not a number that’s really familiar with the U.S. Open is a 3. So if you can get some 3s on your card – but as I say, you start missing some shots, the rough is as bad as I’ve ever seen it. If you hit it in the rough here you’re just advancing it 120 yards, 140 yards, most of the time. That’s still very penal.
The greens are quite tricky. If you miss it on the wrong side it’s still tricky. But if you’re on your game I think a guy could get a score going. I’m not saying 62, though.
I think 18 is a classic great par‑4. The green is very tough to hit. Most of us will be coming in with a 3, 4‑iron. And the way the green is designed it’s on a hill but the green is going away from you on the left side and even on the right side. One of the best finishing holes, I agree.
Q. On the two par‑5s, in 1981 I think only about a half dozen people tried to go for the second in two, nobody for the fourth. How about you this week, if you get off to a good driver? What do you think? Will the players go for those two par‑5s?
ERNIE ELS: I did yesterday. I played the course twice yesterday. In the afternoon I was a little bit more loose in the body. I hit a good drive and had 260 to the front. That’s about the limit of my 3‑wood, a little uphill. I hit a good one. There’s a bunker there with – I call it love grass, if you go in there it’s almost a lost ball. The guys will be very afraid of going in there.
I think if you have 260, I think a lot of guys will go for the green. But, again, it’s going to be so soft out there, we really have to wait and see.
The second hole is definitely a hole that guys will try to get off to a good start.
And then 4, very tough to hit that fairway. You’ve got a blind second shot. So I can’t see too many guys going for that green. Maybe the real super long guys.
Q. Do you have any comments about the putter ban? And do you want to switch to regular one in next three years?
ERNIE ELS: Yes. (Laughter).
Yes, the putter ban is probably going to come into effect now, the anchored method is coming in effect in 2016. And we’ll follow suit. The rule makers have made their decision. I think – I’m not sure what the U.S. PGA Tour will do, but most probably we will follow suit.
And unfortunately for guys that have been using it for a very long time, I think it’s very unfair. For the future of the game, looking down the road 50 to a hundred years, they probably needed to do this step at some point, I guess. Probably should have done it 30, 40 years ago, but we’re at this point now and guys are winning a lot of big tournaments, kids are starting to use it, and so that’s what it is. We are what we are. And we’ll start putting with a short putter again in 2016.
Q. What will be your approach on No. 10? Would there be any reason to go for that green? Did you hit a shot from the Hogan plaque on 18?
ERNIE ELS: I’m going to go with the second shot. There’s quite a few divots around that plaque already. Hopefully I don’t get it from that area in the tournament. It’s amazing when how Ben Hogan hit a 1‑iron from that position. It’s a 4‑iron for me. It’s amazing how the golf ball and the clubs have changed.
10 is another one of those holes that if the tee is moved up, it’s already quite a short hole. But there’s a couple of trees right on the tee box, on the left side. From that back tee to get on to the green you’ve got to hit quite a big hook. And some of the really long guys, Dustin and Keegan and Bubba, might try to take it on with a 3‑wood, depending on flag position.
If they move the tee forward I think a lot of guys will actually have a go. Because it’s about 260, 250 to the front edge. I mean the third hole is almost as long as that, and that’s a par‑3. Depending on flag positions and with conditions so soft, I think if guys get an opportunity they might go for it, because if you miss a fairway the greens will be soft enough that you can chip it out of the rough.
Q. Being a two‑time Open champion in the past, U.S. Open here in the States and a solid iron player throughout your career, how important is good iron play in winning a U.S. Open out here?
ERNIE ELS: Well, it is important. Anytime you play in a major – or any golf tournament, really – you’ve got to hit your iron shots. But it’s basically around the U.S. Opens, normally the margin of error is very small. Normally we play on firmer conditions. If you just pull a 6‑iron, say a regular Tour event, the greens are soft and the ball will stop. Normally at Majors, when you pull that 6‑iron, if you don’t quite hit it 95 percent you’re going to be playing out of the rough. Your next shot will be out of the rough. Those are the margins in Major championships. So through the years you really work on your skill in ball‑striking.
This week it’s going to be a little bit different, as I say, conditions being a little softer. Guys are going to be hitting more greens and having more opportunity to putt. But iron play has always been a favorite part of the game for me, luckily for me.
Q. If this is a bit of a test, it’s coming back to a course that some people consider to be short and old‑fashioned, which side of the argument are you on? Do you feel in your heart of hearts that you want it to do well this week, so we will continue to come back here or are you afraid that it might actually shown up to be slightly out of date and therefore we will not come back here?
ERNIE ELS: That’s a good question. Because of conditions, I think it’s not going to bare its teeth the way it should. I know guys were hoping for a firm test. It would have been really something like Olympic last year. Olympic is quite a short course last year, and I would have said almost the same it would have been here, probably lower if it was firm.
Now with soft conditions you don’t need to use the driver as much because you can still get it in the fairway with a 3‑wood or some of the par‑4s with an iron. And then you have quite a short iron into the green.
I see a very close race with a lot of players in contention this year, unlike other U.S. Opens. It’s going to be bunched. It’s going to be under par, you’ll be seeing quite a few numbers in the red. It’s going to be an exciting U.S. Open.
What number is going to win, I have no idea. It’s still a U.S. Open, I don’t care if you play the easiest course in the world. Put U.S. Open in front of it everybody gets nervous, especially over the weekend. I’m not sure.
Hopefully we can come back, because I really love these old-style, traditional golf courses.
Q. You had to wait a decade between your third and your fourth major wins. I’m just wondering with regard to Padraig Harrington, going on five years since he won the U.S. PGA, how surprised were you to see him put the belly putter in the bag recently for the first time, and what do you think that might do for him, and what does that explain about his mindset?
ERNIE ELS: I’m not sure what’s going on in other people’s minds, but he’s finding that he’s making more putts, that’s why he’s using the accurate putting method. It goes from player to player. I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind it. I had problems with shorter putts and I felt better with the active putting method with shorter putts. Other players feel the rhythm of the stroke they get with a belly putter is – they find it better. I’m not sure. You’ve got to ask him that question. If he’s gone to a different style of putting, obviously he had a putting problem. So there’s obviously he’s feeling better. I see he played good last week. He’s experienced. He gets sharp, he can win at any point.
Q. Coming up on almost a year now since you won The Open, how much do you reflect back on that week and that win? Is there anything about the week that you find that you wish you could recapture or that you had trouble duplicating at all from this time?
ERNIE ELS: Well, I mean, I’m running out of time now. Next month I’ve got to give the Claret Jug back to Mr. Dawson. It’s hard to do. It was very great to have it in my possession again. I’d love to get it back again, obviously, but it takes a lot of hard work.
Going back to a great golf course at Muirfield, which I can’t wait to get to. Yeah, I was very patient. I worked very hard on getting comfortable with the anchored putting, and started feeling a lot more comfortable around U.S. Open in Open champion time last year. My game felt good. I really loved the course. Got a good eye for the course. And had a lot of patience. So I’d like to get that patience back. You’re going to need it again this year.
Q. Something you think is lacking for you?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, a couple of things this year. I’ve been working with the shorter putter again. It took a little focus away from what I want to do. And my ball‑striking for some reason this year hasn’t been as sharp. So I’ve put a bit more work in on that front the last week.
All aspects start clicking, then you can start thinking about winning. And I feel that time is coming right now.
Q. This is kind of a strange one, but you know your golf history, you know what Trevino did with Nicklaus in ‘71. What would happen in this day and age if somebody flipped a rubber snake at somebody at the first tee of an 18‑hole playoff in a U.S. Open? Other than the Twitter world exploding, what would be the reaction of the players?
ERNIE ELS: Imagine, there would be snipers coming out of the trees (laughter). There would be an investigation going on that – somebody might get shot.
I don’t think just to get to where you guys are here now, took about 20 minutes from the practice range, through all the blockages in the road and the security and all that stuff. So that would be quite something.
I don’t like snakes. I hope they don’t do it with me. I might have a heart attack (laughter).
JOE GOODE: We’ve covered politics and snakes, that’s a good place to stop. Two-time U.S. Open champion, Ernie Els, thanks for being with us.