1997 vs. 2011 U.S. Opens: A tale of two Ernies

Ernie Els, of South Africa, celebrates after finishing the 18th hole of the final round of the U.S. Open Sunday, June 15, 1997, at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Els won the 1997 U.S. Open championship.

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BETHESDA, Md. – The Ernie Els at this U.S. Open is far different from the player who won the last Open at Congressional in 1997. He’s 41 now, not 27. He doesn’t putt as well. He believed then; now he’s hoping. He was in form just about every week back in those days; now he’s searching for his first top 10 on the PGA Tour since last September.

As Els himself says, he hasn’t done anything since his third-place finish at the 2010 U.S. Open besides winning the South African Open late last year.

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Els said he left Pebble Beach a year ago feeling “as flat as I’ve ever been in my life ... I felt I let one slip away.”

He arrived here the other day, played in shorts in temperatures he said rose to 102 degrees and is trying to snap out of probably the worst slump of his Hall of Fame career.

Els said his sense of urgency is “almost too much,” that he needs to dial it back. He said he has been lacking patience. He sounded like someone who has been trying too hard.

“My form this year has been atrocious,” the three-time major champion said. “It’s been a very, very weird year. I need to find a way of letting it happen.”

Els weighed in on a variety of topics here Tuesday, including winning majors and blowing majors. He knows about both.

“It's belief,” he said of winning. “You've got to have that picture in your mind, a clear picture of you lifting the trophy. It's a long, long journey, a long road to get to that Sunday afternoon presentation. So there's a lot of ups and downs that you have to face. But at the end of the day you've just got to keep believing that it's your week.”

Third-round leaders have shot final rounds in the 80s in three of the last four majors. Talented young players Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney and Rory McIlroy got experience the hard way, being impaled by a learning curve.

“You’re playing for history,” Els said. “Major championships, you’re making history. When you starting thinking that way, especially if you’re going for you’re first one, that’s when things can go haywire. (Problems can arise) when you’re really trying to win instead of letting the picture play out, letting things go. There’s an art to it.”

McIlroy, 22, is one to watch this week. He’s coming off a fifth place at the Memorial. Prior to his Masters’ brilliance and blowup, he had finished third in three of the past five majors.

The only thing McIlroy needs to learn now is to win. As talented as he is, as much as he has contended in majors at such a young age, he has won but once on the PGA Tour and once in Europe.

“He’s a future (world) No. 1, without a doubt,” Els said. “He’s still learning, he’s not perfect. But he can change history again. He’s got that kind of talent. When he breaks through (winning a major), it could open the floodgates. He could win many majors. But he’s got to break through.”

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