SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been a long time since anything was easy for the man known as the Big Easy.
Ernie Els hasn’t won in more than two years, and he hasn’t won a U.S. Open in 15 years, but don’t write him off.
Not. Just. Yet.
Els played a stroke of genius during Saturday’s third round, a shot that will be remembered for a long, long time if he somehow finds a way to win a third U.S. Open on Sunday.
It happened on the par-5 17th after Els missed the green right and his ball went down a steep slope. Slope? That’s an understatement. It was more like a cliff.
Els was almost in Tiger territory. On Friday, Woods missed the green long and right and had to pitch around a couple of trees to give himself a 15-foot birdie try, which he missed. Els was pin-high, didn’t have tree trouble and actually had a pretty good lie, but it was still a tough shot. He considered playing a linksy bump-and-run but decided to put the ball in the air instead. It landed perfectly, bounced perfectly and rolled perfectly, right into the cup. Eagle! (You can see the chip at the 38-second mark in the video above.)
Suddenly, he was back to two over par for the Open. That stroke came with the familiar lazy smile that we’ve come to know over the last two decades. He’s humble, polite and possibly the most-liked golfer of his generation. Nobody gets a nickname like Big Easy by being a jerk.
It was a magical shot that felt like some kind of an omen. That’s something we won’t know until Sunday. If Els doesn’t win, that pitch-in will be a nice little shot forgotten in time. But if he does win, it will forever be the shot that foreshadowed his golfing resurrection.
“I guess it was about a 50-yard shot,” Els said later, again with a shrug, as if he somehow had very little to do with it. “It’s one of those one-in-a-thousand shots. There was a lot of luck in that one.”
Luck. Now there’s something that has always been a factor at Olympic Club, especially with its quirky reverse-sloped fairways and up-and-down holes and big bounces.
There is no luck, however, when you post a two-under 68 on Saturday in a U.S. Open. “Moving day in the U.S. Open, if you shoot even par, you’re moving,” Els joked.
Els is two over through 54 holes, and he’ll have a chance on Sunday. That’s good to see because things have been tough, even for a man of his seemingly unlimited patience, since Els last won at Bay Hill more than two years ago.
In March, Els kicked away the Transitions Championship. He had a one-shot lead going into the last three holes but missed a six-footer for birdie at the 16th — his putter has been his biggest betrayer over the last three years — and then bogeyed the final two holes to finish one shot out of a playoff.
Later, in Orlando at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a rare thing happened. He got snippy with reporters who brought up his unsightly finish. “You guys keep going on as if I killed somebody,” he said. “I’m over it.”
At the Zurich Classic in New Orleans in April, he again failed to make a key putt late in the final round and eventually lost a playoff to rising star Jason Dufner. Just when it seemed the stars had aligned to make sure the Big Easy’s return to prominence would happen in the Big Easy, he came up short. This time, at least, he didn’t beat himself.
Maybe the plan was to wait for the Olympic Club. Els is 42, a member of the Hall of Fame, and he’s doing great things in the battle against autism, an affliction that his son battles every day of his life. He has achieved all he needs to achieve in golf, and he could retire tomorrow and be satisfied.
Except now he’s got a chance to win another Open and add to his glittering resume of two U.S. Opens and a British Open. His short game, and especially his bunker play, has been as good as anyone in his generation. All golfers should envy those “soft” hands. Els is making putts again like a young Ernie. Don’t ask why, just let them keep going in, and enjoy the fact that he has a chance to make history again on Sunday.
On Thursday night, it didn’t seem like Els would be anywhere near the lead going into the last day of this Open. He struggled to an opening 75, thanks a triple-bogey 8 at the 16th hole and a double-bogey 6 at the fourth.
“I’ve had a couple of train wrecks out there,” he joked, “so hopefully I got those out of the way.”
If you didn’t write him off Thursday, or even Friday, you surely would have done it early in Saturday’s round. Olympic Club’s first six holes, as tough a stretch of golf as we’ve seen in recent Open history, appeared to have turned Ernie into the Big Over Easy. He bogeyed the first, fourth and fifth holes and drove it into the fairway bunker at the sixth. He was seven over par for the tournament then and seemed to be out if it. Then he played a super 7-iron shot onto the green and saved par.
At the seventh, a short par 4, he played an awkward bunker shot brilliantly and scored a kick-in birdie. “I hit an unbelievable shot there,” he said. “It was almost as good as the shot on 17.”
After Justin Rose rolled in a swift downhill birdie putt at the par-3 eighth hole, Els followed by making an equally swift one right on top of him. A hillside of fans roared their surprise and approval.
“Those three holes turned things around,” Els said. “I was three over for the round, seven over for the event on the sixth tee. To come back and play the last 12 holes in five under par is quite amazing. The shot on 17 is what dreams are made of.”
These aren’t just any dreams this week. These are Open dreams, and winning an Open is about perseverance. Els knows.
“My mental attitude has been quite good,” he said. “Experience helps around here. For some reason, I’m patient again this week. That’s been kind of my virtue in major championship golf, the ability to be patient and wait it out. And I think you’re going to have to do that tomorrow.”
It won’t be easy, of course. Sundays never are in the Open. You can ask Els. He’s an expert.