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All About Attitude

How Ernie Els won at Congressional but can he do it again?

Posted Jun 07, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

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Ernie Els will be back next week at a venue which defined the highpoint of his career as a challenger for major championships.  Though Els was to win another major after his 1997 US Open triumph at Congressional, it has to be said that the 2002 Open Championship victory at Muirfield lacked the conviction of his previous successes.  In fact he almost threw it away in a closing 70 before securing the title in a play-off with Steve Elkington, Stuart Appleby and Thomas Levet. 

Tiger Woods finished a relatively lowly 19th behind Els at Congressional.  Yet in ensuing majors, the South African seemed to be unnerved by the presence of Woods to the extent that he never again performed to the maximum of his ability when they were both in challenging positions.  By way of contrast, Congressional also emphasised the extent to which Els had the measure of Colin Montgomerie at this level.

Tom Lehman, who was 54-hole leader of the championship for a third successive year, echoed those thoughts when he said: "You don't have many chances to win majors unless you're a phenomenal player.  I look at Colin and myself and I say 'Yes, we should have each won a US Open.’  I suppose what hurts most is that I must still be lacking something.  And Colin is probably having the same thoughts right now."

That was the legacy of Congressional ‘97.  And Els had no doubts back then about the advantage he held over his rivals. "In majors, I think my attitude is better than at other times,” he said.  “I may be a little bit more patient with myself and with those around me.  I don't push it all that much.  I try to put the ball in play and take it from there.  If you look at all the great players; if you look at Jack Nicklaus, he had the ability to make it happen.  He was calm.  He was always in control of his game. That's hard to do, but I'm getting closer to achieving it, particularly at the highest level."

For his part, Montgomerie admitted that as an emotional person he was more likely to make an ill-judged decision under pressure.  Els was clearly aware of this when they played the critical 17th hole for the last time, joint leaders of the championship at four under par. Though he hadn't intended to be hitting first into the green, he knew he could strike a telling blow with the right shot. "I remembered being in a similar situation with Colin in the World Matchplay at Wentworth, where I beat him," said the South African.

"This is one of the toughest tournaments to win, mentally," said Montgomerie, "and Ernie seems to have what it takes."  Though the Scot had little control over the order of their shots, the quality of his opponent's five-iron obviously rattled him.  Then he made the mistake of waiting for five minutes over a treacherous five-foot par putt, because of a commotion around the 18th green, only 75 yards away.

Again, Els had the calm control to read the situation perfectly.  "You're not going to get 20,000 people quiet when a couple of international (non-American) boys are leading the US Open," he said. Yet Monty insisted on waiting, so increasing the stress on already frayed nerves. That's the effect a US Open course has on a player after it has waged a battle of attrition for four gruelling rounds.

Els said of his challenge: "I felt comfortable and had the will to keep going and push it through."  And while becoming only the 17th player to win this title more than once, he had the admirable return of 56 out of 72 greens in regulation over the four days.  He also putted well, taking an average of 1.63 putts for each of those greens hit in regulation and in the crucial, final round, he needed only 26 putts compared with 28 from Montgomerie and 30 from Lehman.

Meanwhile, Montgomerie was proved to be correct in predicting that Woods would find the challenge of Congressional vastly different from the wide-open, 50-yard fairways of Augusta National, where he had gained a sensational, 12-stroke victory only two months previously. Indeed Woods admitted: "Because I wasn't quite here physically, my mind was tested. In fact my patience and my grit and every kind of emotion you can conjure up was tested.  The golf course beat me up."

Yet if he was chastened, he showed himself to be a willing learner.  And three years later, he would come of age in sensational fashion with a 15-stroke US Open win at Pebble Beach.  Els was tied second on that occasion and the glory of his dominance of Congressional ’97 was suddenly a distant memory.

- Dermot Gilleece

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