For 16 holes, Ernie Els dialled back the clock during the first round of the US Open at Erin Hills on Thursday. He was four-under-par 20 years after his second US Open win at Congressional, and even the two bogeys he made finishing up could not dampen his enthusiasm. Source :Sunshine Tour
“It’s a shame about the last two holes, but, you know, I could definitely play those holes better. So that’s a positive,” he laughed. “So going into the next couple, I’d love to get that better.”
His 70 left him five shots adrift of the stellar Rickie Fowler, a man much touted as a potential winner this week. Fowler shot a bogey-free 65 in a display of power, accuracy and touch which gave him a one-stroke lead over Paul Casey and Xander Schauffele. Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood and Brooks Koepka were all on four-under.
Despite all the players ahead of him, all those years of playing in majors told Els to be more than happy with his opening round. “All in all, I’ve got to be happy,” he said. “You take a two-under par in the first round in the US Open, you’re right there. I know Rickie played a great round, seven-under, but through experience you know that the field’s coming, the worst part. So we’ll see where it goes, but I’m happy with that first round.”
He was especially happy because it signalled a change in his playing fortunes this year – as well as the first time in a while he’s playing pain-free. “The way I’ve been scoring has been awful this year. But physically I wasn’t great,” he said. “A lot of times I had a couple of niggles in the lower back, hip and shoulder and knee. So it’s really the first year that I’ve got experience with that, so it’s kind of new.
“So I feel good this week. I’ve got my trainer 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.
“You know, I felt that some of my game is coming back. My putting’s back and short game’s pretty good. So I’ve just got to play golf.”
Also getting a two-under-par start was Brandon Stone, who, with Els, was the best of the South Africans after the first round. That was significant as it conjured memories of the Big Easy embracing Stone when the youngster won the South African Open Championship in 2016.
There were good starts for Thomas Aiken and Charl Schwartzel, who carded one-under-par 71s, and Branden Grace and George Coetzee each posted level-par.
Louis Oosthuizen was two-over, while Oliver Bekker was level with defending champion Dustin Johnson on three-over.
For now, the South African challenge is being led by Els. It’s one he’s relishing. “You try to still play the schedule that I’ve played for 20-something years, but it gets tough to go out there and play, especially at my age,” he said. “You can’t quite do what you have done or are trying to do because of some kind of little niggle. So, yeah, it gets frustrating.
“But you’ve got to get better. Yeah, keep working on it. I like to compete. It hasn’t been really good the last year or so, but I still want to be out there with the guys and play.”