ERIN, Wis. — The years since his last U.S. Open title have "gone like that," Ernie Els said, as he snapped his fingers and laughed.
After a day like Thursday, who’s to say he can’t win another?
On the 20th anniversary of his second U.S. Open championship, Els put himself in the mix for a third, scrambling his way around Erin Hills for a 2-under 70 that kept him on the leaderboard most of the day. He was tied for 18th late in the afternoon, five shots behind leader Rickie Fowler.
He is 47 now, not 27, and the man known as the Big Easy feels the aches and pains a lot more than he used to.
"The lower back, hip, shoulder, knee and so on," he said, before stopping and smiling at the seemingly never-ending nature of the list. "It’s really the first year I’ve started experiencing that, so it’s kind of new."
He says his trainer, Vern McMillan, put him together nicely for this week — arguably the most physically and mentally taxing on the golf calendar — and for the first time this season, Els says he’s pain free.
"My putting is back and the short game is pretty good, so I’ve just got to play golf," he said.
If anyone knows the value of par at the U.S. Open, it would be a two-time champion, the likes of Els.
He made two of them to outlast Loren Roberts on the 20th hole of a Monday playoff for his first title in 1994 at Oakmont. He made five straight down the stretch to hold off Colin Montgomerie at Congressional in 1997.
In the first round Thursday, Els’ hit his tee shot on the downhill par-3 ninth to 6 feet and made the putt for his fourth birdie and a score of 4-under 32 on the front nine.
But it will be the scrambling and the pars on the back that kept him in the round.
Pretzeled in knee-high fescue left of the 15th fairway, he blocked his second shot into a bunker situated well below the green. He got up and down from there, making a 14-foot putt to save par and stay at 4 under. On the par-3 16th, he blocked his tee shot right into the high grass but used his famously soft hands to feather a chip down the hill, then made an 8-footer to save par again.
He didn’t scramble as well over the last two holes, and a pair of bogeys brought him to 2 under — not as good as it could have been, but certainly in the picture.
"You take a 2-under par in the first round of the U.S. Open, you know you’re right there," Els said. "I know Rickie played a great round, 7 under, but through experience, you know the field is coming toward par."
Els finds himself being feted as an elder-statesman of the game, at times applauded more for what he’s done than what he’s doing. On Wednesday, he was nominated for the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian award, an honour to be presented next month.
But he insists he’s not ready to be a ceremonial golfer, or ceremonial anything, quite yet.
He is nearly five years removed from winning his fourth major — the 2012 British Open — but he hasn’t posted a victory since.
It’s significant because his five-year exemption into the majors that stems from the victory at Royal Lytham is running out this year.
At the Masters, where he shot 20 over and finished 53rd, he said he would be just fine if that, his 23rd appearance at Augusta, was the last one. This is his 25th U.S. Open, and he echoed those thoughts after his round Thursday.
But he’s really not thinking about next year. He’s got work to do Friday.
"I like to compete," he said. "It hasn’t been really good the last year or so, but I still want to be out there with the guys and play."