He won his first of two U.S. Open titles when he was just 24. And on Friday, after he shot 3 under in the second round of his 18th U.S. Open, Ernie Els couldn't help but smile at the memory of that playoff win at Oakmont.
"I must have been out of my head to think that I could have won at 24," he said.
Els is fast approaching his 41st birthday in October, and he knows the window of opportunity to add to his three career majors is dwindling. But the big South African has already won twice in 2010, he leads the FedExCup standings and he'll start the third round at Pebble Beach just two strokes off the lead.
So surely another title run isn't out of the question.
"I feel good," the two-time U.S. Open champ acknowledged. "I feel my game's there. I'd like to think I've got quite a few more left."
Els matched the leader, Graeme McDowell, for the low round of the day -- and the tournament to date – with Friday’s 68. He's driving the ball extremely well, hitting all but five fairways in the first two rounds, and has found 24 of 36 greens in regulation.
An early morning date with Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood on Friday enabled Els to take advantage of optimum scoring conditions. His putter was particularly cooperative on the poa annua greens that had yet to see the kind of traffic they had when Els struggled a bit on Friday afternoon. He needed just 25 putts, compared with 33 in the first round.
"You get a bit more tense when you feel that some aspects of your game aren't quite there," said Els, who worked on his ball position and aim Thursday night to remedy the situation. "You might get a little flustered. Yesterday I felt uncomfortable on the greens. You don't want to feel like that in a U.S. Open. You want to feel like you're going to hole some putts. When something is not quite there, obviously, we all are human beings, and you're going to feel a little tension.
"I feel my game is very good this week, for some reason. So the last two days I felt a bit more calm. I've played this event where I've been very tense and other times I've been quite calm. And all I can say is that the times that I've been tense my game wasn't quite there. And there's so much trouble that you've got to stop thinking about it. This week I'm feeling all right."
Els has felt that way for most of the year, actually. He broke a two-year victory drought when he won the World Golf Championships-CA Championship and followed up with a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard in his next start.
The Big Easy then honored his commitment to play in the Shell Houston Open, where he tied for 44th and finished 18th at the Masters. A tie for third at the Valero Texas Open was sandwiched between two missed cuts, including in his last start at the Memorial Tournament.
"So I think I've been a little over-golfed, to be honest," said Els, who spent part of last week playing golf in Florida with his father. "It's given me a bit more time to get some energy and work a little on my game the last week and I feel a little bit better now. But I like this time of the year."
And why not? In addition to his two U.S. Open wins, Els also won the 2002 British Open. And lest we forget, he was tied for first in the 'B' Flight at Pebble Beach in 2000, finishing as the runner-up, 15 strokes behind Tiger Woods in that epic win.
Els has played in 71 majors and posted 28 top-10 finishes -- seven of which have come at the U.S. Open. He trailed Colin Montgomerie by four at the midway point of the 1994 Open and Tom Lehman by one in 1997 and went on to win.
"It's been such a long time since I won one of these," Els said. "But we've got a long way to go. Obviously, I needed a round like today to get me back in the tournament, which is nice. We've just got to look at conditions. I feel comfortable with my game, you know. I worked really hard coming in here. So I feel my game's there, which is nice, because you need your game around a U.S. Open venue.
"Are the wins going to help? Sure it will help. It's been so long, I've been in all kinds of situations. But there are a lot of guys hungry for a win, so it's not just me going for a win. So there's still a lot of golf to be played you've just got to plug along and see what happens on the back nine on Sunday." -- Helen Ross