Revitalized Ernie Els among 40-somethings in early U.S. Open contention

USGA/JD Cuban

Revitalized Ernie Els among 40-somethings in early U.S. Open contention

PGA Tour

Revitalized Ernie Els among 40-somethings in early U.S. Open contention

ERIN, Wis. – There’s some advantages to being 47 years old.

Like when you enter a new property, your senses – sharpened by time – guide you immediately.

“I felt good from the moment I walked through the gates (at Erin Hills),” Ernie Els said.

The Big Easy’s comfort showed in Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open, as Els birdied four of his first nine holes to go out in 4-under 32 and ended up with a 2-under 70 – a score that has him on the fringe of the top 10 as the afternoon wave makes its pass.

It was a disappointing finish, though. Els bogeyed his final two holes, despite one of them being a par 5.

The end may have been a grind, but then again Els is used to that in 2017.

“Yeah, I’ve been doing it all year,” Els said, with a laugh.

Indeed, it hasn’t been a banner year for the four-time major champion. Els missed seven of his first eight cuts in 2017 and while it’s gotten better since, the jump hasn’t been huge. Els finished last at the Masters among players that made the cut.

He followed with two missed cuts, a withdrawal and finally a semblance of form with a T35-T51-T60 stretch heading into Erin Hills.

Els said his scoring has been “awful” this year, and less than reliable health has also been a culprit in his struggles.

“Physically I wasn’t great,” Els said. “A lot of times I had a couple of niggles in the lower back hip and shoulder and knee. It’s really the first year that I’ve got experience with that, so it’s kind of new.”

The 47-year-old isn’t exactly 100 percent this week, has his trainer on-site to help and admits the combination of bad scoring and ailing health bit into his motivation earlier this year.

“It gets tough to go out there and play,” Els 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.”

Els is indeed playing pain-free again, though, and Erin Hills clearly has his mojo up.

He’s not the only player in the older-40 club who thrived Thursday at Erin Hills.

Lee Westwood, 44, birdied his opening hole, followed two holes later with a double bogey then made four birdies in his next six. It led to a 3-under 69 for the Englishman.

Westwood’s play has been steady this year, as he’s missed just one cut in 11 starts. All but two finishes have been inside the top 30, and he entered the U.S. Open coming off consecutive top-15 showings.

The still major-less Englishman has 11 top-5 finishes in majors, including a T-2 showing at last year’s Masters. Even one day in, he feels his current game can take him the distance.

“If I keep going like this, I should be right there on Sunday to give myself a chance,” Westwood said.

The final of the over-40 brigade to find Thursday success was 47-year-old Angel Cabrera. The two-time major champion has missed six of his last eight cuts, yet was at one point 3 under Thursday before settling for a still-inspiring 71.

Cabrera and Els are in the last year of exemptions into the U.S. Open for a previous major win. If either can’t come down with a top-10 finish this week, that may mean their absence at this event next year.

For Els, that would end a streak of 25 straight U.S. Open appearances. But the Big Easy isn’t fretting.

“It’s not really on my mind,” Els said. “It would be nice to keep going, but if not, it’s also fine. I’ve had a good time.”

He had some more of those Thursday. If they carry on, Els may very well earn a 2018 Open start. And maybe more.

Latest

More Golfweek
Home