PGA Tour

Big Easy fancies his chances

Ernie Els (Gallo Images)
Ernie Els (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - It may be 17 years since Ernie Els last won the US Open, but the Big Easy is optimistic about his chances at this year's tournament, starting at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, in North Carolina, on Thursday.

Els tasted success in the event early in his career, winning in 1994 and 1997, and could well add a third title if he started well.

"This tournament has long been one of the highlights of the year for me," said the four-time Major winner on his website this week.

"It's a while since I won my two titles, but I've been in the mix a bunch of times since then."

The 44-year-old normally played the week before a Major, but this time felt getting to the course early was more important.

"Obviously other guys might prefer to play a tournament the week before a major. I've done that myself plenty of times and, to be honest, you just have to go with what feels right for you at the time, whatever helps you get mentally ready for a major.

"This year, I wanted to come in when there weren't many people around and I could wear shorts and just be more casual."

Though Els had had his battles with his putting over the last few years, his play from around the greens had always been a strength and could be vital in the difficult scoring conditions.

Getting up and down would always be tough, but Els was confident about his chances.

"The big challenge is the shots into and around Pinehurst's famous greens, which are shaped like upturned saucers.

"If you miss greens, the ball often gets swept into deep greenside swales and it's tough getting down in two from there.

"You have to use your imagination and play a real variety of shots, which is more of a British Open type quality rather than a typical US Open. But I like that. I like it when a golf course gives you some options."

Making his 22nd appearance, Els was one of five South Africans teeing it up with countrymen Retief Goosen, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Garth Mulroy all playing.

When the course was last used for the US Open in 2005, Kiwi Michael Campbell came out on top, on even par for the week in famously difficult scoring conditions.

"I'd say this course is one of the toughest on the US Open rotation," Els said.

"As with any Major championship, there will be pins that you realistically can't go at, so you have to expect stretches of holes where it will be tough giving yourself really good birdie chances.

"You'll hear players talking a lot about 'being patient' - trust me, it's an essential virtue in the US Open and again that's fine with me."

Goosen, also a two-time US Open winner (2001, 2004) was playing in the final edition of his 10-year exemption in the event, since his last victory.

Goosen was in contention at the St Jude Classic on the PGA Tour last week, with a pair of opening 66s, but played the weekend in 75 and 72 to finish tied for 32nd.

Goosen would be hoping for a good week, as his world ranking had fallen to 214th since battling a back injury last year.

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