'Why in the hell did I make that putt at 18 yesterday to get into this thing?'

'Why in the hell did I make that putt at 18 yesterday to get into this thing?'

by Ernie Els

Ernie Els tells us in his own words the story of an historic US Open 25 years ago which concluded in a dramatic play-off

Three years before the most stark changing of the guard imaginable – when Tiger Woods received his Green Jacket from Nick Faldo – the golf world took delivery of what it thought was its next superstar. Ernie Els had quietly been making a name for himself in Europe, claiming seven top 10s in 1993 and then winning the Dubai Desert Classic at the start of 1994.  

Eighth in the Masters that year and 2nd in May’s Volvo PGA saw Els enter the US Open at Oakmont as an outsider, but one with form and presence.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the South African played himself into the last group on Sunday with rounds of 69, 71 and 66. The 24-year-old stumbled with a final-round 73 but a clutch putt on the 18th got him into a play-off with Scotsman Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts of America.  

In the 18 extra holes on Monday, Els shot 3-over to tie with Roberts while an overheating Montgomerie faded with a 78. Els then made two pars to beat Roberts in the sudden-death play-off and claim his first major victory.

This is the story of the week, in Els’ own words… 

Ernie Els on… Preparation

My dad and I watched the 1983 US Open, when Larry Nelson won. They showed quite a bit of that in South Africa. So just from watching television, I had a bit of an idea of what to expect – the greens and how tough it was.

Then the week before I finished 2nd at the Buick to Lee Janzen, so I couldn’t wait to get there. I arrived Sunday night and played 18 holes every day I think. When the tournament started it was 105 degrees every day, and we played Monday too. It shows you what a young man can do.

Ernie Els

I wanted to get as much information as I possibly could – to see exactly the line off the 1st and what I’m going to hit. Every single hole, I really did my homework with my caddie Ricci Roberts. I had a really nice game plan, but if your swing’s not quite in good shape, you can’t hit the shot, so it doesn’t really matter how much homework you do. 

But I felt I had good game and I wanted to see as much as I could. 

I thought I was ready to win. I felt good about it. At that age you think you can win anything. I enjoyed the course and thought I had a bit of a chance. 

Everyone was fearful of the greens because they were so fast but I really enjoyed myself on them, believe it or not.

It’s amazing how we played in those days compared to today – a lot of us were still using wooden drivers in ’94. The course was also different. You could move the ball out the rough on to a lot of the greens in 1994.

I’ve never been the straightest driver in the world, but I got myself around in ’94 because I could kind of muscle it out of a lot of the rough. The US Open is renowned for its thick rough but I would say they’ve really upped the ante the last five to 10 years.

It’s a lot more dense than it was back in the day. You could advance the ball, get the ball to run towards the green. Now it’s at least a half a shot penalty.

Ernie Els on… the tournament

Thursday I shot 69 and Friday 71. Friday wasn’t about my 71 though! It was about Arnold Palmer’s last day at the US Open – and also the OJ Simpson car chase. Yeah, it was quite a week.

Arnold retiring was obviously a big deal. I remember all the people on 18. And then afterwards, I saw the replay of his press conference where he got quite emotional. That was quite something. 

And I knew there was a car chase going on. I think that whole week was getting kind of weird. I think they cut the golf coverage to go to LA and some helicopter chasing the Bronco down the highway. And I knew there was a lot of talk about it. It was in the newspapers, and ESPN was covering it a lot. I didn’t know much about OJ Simpson, but he was very famous to have all of LA chasing. 

Related: Colin Montgomerie on missing out at Winged Foot

I had a wonderful Saturday. I shot 30 on the front nine. The greens were holding a bit. I think they got scared because the weather was so warm, and they put a bit of water on Saturday. So there were quite a lot of good scores. That obviously put me in great position for the title.

I got myself in the final group through Saturday and played with my good friend Frankie Nobilo. It was a nice, comfortable pairing for me. We were good mates.

I felt comfortable going into it even if it was just my second US Open – though it didn’t help my game much because I shot 2-over! It was nice being two foreigners playing in the US Open final round.

Ernie Els

I played pretty well for three rounds. I hit the ball straight, I hit it onto the greens, I gave myself so many opportunities for birdies. Then the fourth round I kind of lost it a little bit, I didn’t hit the ball very well and it was a different golf course, hard and fast. 

I three-putted on 16 from the front of the green and on 18 I took 5. I had like a five-footer to make on 18 just to get in the play-off. I hit it in the rough, chipped out into a divot and hit it to the front edge of the green. I made some rookie errors coming in.

Ernie’s column continues on the next page, where he takes us through the play-off drama…