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Borges: Golf not so Easy for Ernie Els on back nine

June 16, 2017 GMT

ERIN, Wis. — Golf has gotten hard for The Big Easy, but for 16 holes yesterday it was like old times. And then it, and he, got old again.

Ernie Els, the 47-year-old four-time major winner, has struggled with his game the past few years, injuries wracking his body and the yips undermining his once reliable putting stroke. A year ago at the Masters, he was so lost without his now banned anchored putter that he came undone, needing six shaky putts on the opening hole … from 3 feet.

He didn’t make the cut and later apologized to his legion of loyal followers for his putting woes, promising to stick with it. He has but with only minimally positive results until yesterday’s first round of the 117th U.S. Open.

Once the No.?1 player in the world, Els hasn’t won on tour in five years. He’s missed the cut nine times this season and been forced to withdraw in a 10th, meaning he’s only played a full four rounds five times. But for 16 holes yesterday, he was the Ernie of old instead of old Ernie.

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Els was 4-under-par when he got to the 17th tee, two holes left on the hilly, meandering 9-mile trek that constitutes a round of golf on this old cow pasture now known as Erin Hills. Those holes reminded Els of what Mark Twain thought of golf.

“Golf is a good walk spoiled,” Twain once said. Yesterday, it was just a good walk until Els’ old bones said “Enough!” and shut down, leaving him to bogey the last two holes and spoil not only his walk but a potentially resounding anniversary celebration for Els.

“It’s a shame the last two holes,” said Els, whose 2-under 70 left him 5 shots behind leader Rickie Fowler’s 7-under 65. “I could definitely play those holes better, so that’s a positive.”

Els laughed at that, as he does at most of golf’s twisting turns these days. He has seen much in life, great moments and the hard side of raising an autistic son. The latter led him to begin a foundation that has raised millions, and his charitable acts in that and other areas have made him as beloved for his good works as for 24 years of good golf.

But things are winding down for Ernie Els at golf’s highest level and he knows it. Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the second of his two U.S. Open victories, a win at Congressional over Colin Montgomerie, who he’d also beaten along with Loren Roberts three years earlier in what became a 20-hole playoff.

Twenty years is a long time but also just a blink of an eye, depending how you look at it. Like a critical putt, Els saw that anniversary from all angles.

“My dad actually sent me a photo of us after Congressional,” Els said. “It was my dad, my mom, (his wife) Liezl and myself with the trophy. We both said it’s crazy that 20 years has gone so quickly.

“In many ways it feels like yesterday. In other ways it feels like a lifetime ago. So it’s amazing. I’m just blessed to still be playing the game. Nice to still compete.”

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That’s what he did yesterday in what might be his final U.S. Open. Unless he makes the top 10 he would have to qualify in sectionals to be back next June, an eventuality that would require three more days like today minus those final two holes.

In April he played what he knows is likely his final Masters, and so the list of used to be grows for Els, as it does for us all. Els seemed philosophical about that but remained fixated too on what still might be with a little luck this week, because although his game may have faded his competitive urges have not.

“All and all I’ve got to be happy,” Els said. “You take a 2-under par in the first round in the U.S. Open. I know Rickie played a great round but through experience you know the field’s coming. So we’ll see where it goes.

“The way I’ve been scoring has been awful this year, but physically I wasn’t great. A lot of times I had a couple niggles (aches) — the lower back, the hip, the shoulder, the knee. This week I’m feeling a bit better. Really loose. It’s nice to play pain free. I feel like my game is coming back so it’s nice to go play golf.

“You’ve got to keep grinding along and keep trying to put scores on the boards. That’s what the mindset is. You’ve just got to kind of grit your teeth.”

Els has been forced to do that for some time, not just on yesterday’s back nine. He is presently ranked 401 in the world, an almost absurd number for someone for whom the game was once under his full command.

A decade ago Els was part of what is known as “The Big Five,” a time in golf ruled weekly by Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Els. They traded world ranking spots time and again. They often were battling head to head in majors, which is one reason Els finished second six times. Had he won even half those, he would have seven majors and be looked at somewhat differently, but life is what it is.

“You try to still play the schedule I’ve played for 20-something years but it does get tough to go out there and play,” Els admitted. “You can’t quite do what you have done or are trying to do because of some little niggle. It gets frustrating.

“But I like to compete. It hasn’t really been good the last year or so, but I still want to be out there with the guys, playing. I’d love to have a chance to be honest with you, but like I said at the Masters, 23 there, 25 here. It would be nice to keep going but if not, it’s also fine. I’ve had a good time, thank you.”

For those who still remember The Big Easy when golf was easy for him and made it hard on his competitors, thank you back.