U.S. Open Inside the Ropes: A Walk With Ernie Els
The setting Wednesday afternoon at Chambers Bay was absolutely perfect for golf, so I walked the front nine with Ernie Els, George Coetzee, Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen—four South Africans who are close friends. Here’s what I saw.
The tees were up on the first hole, which can play as either a par 4 or par 5, but that didn’t stop Oosthuizen from hitting a driver off the deck for his second shot. Off a brown lie about as thin as a dance floor, he pured it. The ball rolled and rolled and rolled, finally coming to rest just left of the green in decent position.
No. 2It became evident on the second green that a match was being played, mainly when Grace was forced to putt a three-footer. He didn’t look particularly thrilled about it. I later found out the teams were Els and Grace against Coetzee and Oosthuizen, with the major winners split up like two teenagers playing a game against 10-year-olds.
The par-3 third hole has a green that plays like sort of like a redan, but doesn’t look like one. A huge hump right of the green kicks the ball left, as you can see below. When the pin is far left, players will likely avoid the hill, but any other hole location requires use of the slope, which is much steeper than this photo does justice.
The walk from No. 3 green to No. 4 tee is going to prove problematic this week unless the USGA comes up with a quick solution. Marshals were asking players to walk back in front of the green, under the ropes through the crowd, under the ropes to the 11th hole, behind the 11th green, then over a high bridge to the fourth tee. Most players said exactly what you would: Screw that. I’m making my own way through the crowd. We’ll see how that works out.
No. 4The fourth hole, which plays uphill, begins a stretch of three par 4s that all measure longer than 488 yards. 495, 488, 508 to be exact. Yikes.
Walking up the fourth hole I chatted with the 17-year-old standard bearer. You know, the kid who carries unnecessarily heavy sign that reads “ELS, OOSTHUIZEN, COETZEE, GRACE.” Her name was Ashley Hillis, and she attends nearby Curtis High School where she played on the golf team coached by Michael Greller, Jordan Spieth’s caddie. Greller used to teach at a local elementary school and coach the high school team as well. He’s since moved up in the world, but Hillis spoke highly of his coaching skills. “He’s great at helping with distances and clubs and stuff, kind of like what he does for Jordan.” I’d say so.
On the fifth hole, a downhill par four from a seriously high tee box, Els’ father stood behind the green waving his hat in the air while all four players hit their approaches, as if to signify where the should be aiming. That got a chuckle out of the foursome.
On the sixth hole, apparently all the action happened in the group in front of us. Stephen Gallacher’s caddie slipped off the dune shown below, hurting his ankle. He eventually was carted off. Gallacher’s phone must be loaded with texts and voicemails from unemployed caddies on site.
No. 7This hole was eventful. Walking up the seventh was when I realized that walking Chambers Bay is similar to walking on a beach. The sand, and I don’t mean the bunker sand, is so deep. It sort of feels like you’re walking in quick sand, and I assume that will only get worse as the week goes on, making for some very tired legs.
To avoid getting sand in my shoes, I trotted through the fescue for the rest of the hole. Bad decision. I slipped and fell twice in the course of about 15 steps, which proved to be fine material for some gallery heckling.
Coetzee had this lie in front of the seventh green, and Oosthuizen made fun of him as he slipped trying to get footing over the ball.
Next to the seventh green I briefly sheathed with George Coetzee’s caddie, Alan Burns. I asked about the score of the match, and the wager. “Oh, I’m not sure the score,” he said, “but there might be a few dollars floating around.” I’m sure, I said. “It’s really about pride,” he responded, “especially with these four.”
I then asked him what kind of player he thought Chambers Bay favored.
“Anyone can win this thing. Four days of great ball striking, a few good bounces. Done.”
Sounds easy, right?
No. 8This hole is a 600+ yard, dogleg left par 5 where players are tempted to cut the corner off the tee. All four in this group tried to, with Ernie taking the most aggressive line. After he hit his drive, he said glumly, “That’s dead.”
Turns out he was right. We walked up the fairway only to find Ernie’s ball deep in this mysterious green patch on the sidehill left of the fairway. This just might be the most lush green grass on the course, which really isn’t saying much.
But why is it there? Is Mike Davis so mean that he's watered down an area that may provide a nice kick forward and right into the fairway? Is there a broken sprinkler system? Whatever the reason, it’s oddly fascinating.
Ernie took one swipe and advanced the ball about six inches. The second swipe advanced it about 16 yards. He then looked at Grace and playfully said, “I’m taking an X here.”
The tee box on the par-3 ninth hole might have the best view on the course. The four South Africans I followed did not disagree.
The green on nine is huge, but very slopy. There’s a high bank left of the green that can be used to carom shots onto the green close to the pin, and the green is surrounded by some of the most frightening bunkering I’ve seen. At over 200 yards, and severely downhill, this hole will provide some of the most exciting shots on the front nine.