'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

Ernie Els on… the play-off

For some reason I felt really down going into the play-off, after looking like I was going to win in regulation even though I made the putt to get in to the Monday. 

I was disappointed by the way I finished and I think that’s why I started so poorly. 

I pulled a lot of tee shots with my woods on Sunday so I tried to work on it in the morning. Every time I got quick at the ball, it went left. But then on the 1st tee I hit it way left again and that kind of got me angry. I didn’t hit my driver well those last two days.

I thought maybe it was hopeless after the 2nd hole to be honest. I thought, ‘Man, what are you doing out there?’ I just wanted to go back and start again. 

I hit a 4-iron off the tee to get it into play. I missed it a little bit, and was in the semi-rough. I had about 130 yards to the hole so I needed a solid wedge to get it there and the ball just took off. It just flew over the green and bounced into a bush. I was dead. I was actually lucky there was a marshal standing there, so he saw the ball go in and we found it.

I took a drop then hit it way too hard and after I hit the chip from the 3rd tee right across the green, as I was walking down I said to Ricci, “Why in the hell did I make that putt at 18 yesterday to get into this thing?” I just wanted to get out of there. 

I didn’t hit a good shot on that hole and after two holes I was 4-over.

I tried to compose myself and hit a couple of good shots on the 3rd and holed a long putt for birdie that got me back into it a little bit, especially after Loren made a double on 5 to leave us both on +3. I was back in the game. We both bogeyed 8 and birdied 9 so after nine holes we were right there.

If Loren had holed his birdie putt on 11 that might have changed things. Maybe I would have tried to make mine. He hit an unbelievable putt; I was standing to the left of him and when the ball got up there I thought, ‘Whoa, this might go in.’ It hit the hole, and changed in my favour. But if it had gone in, maybe I would have made mine, you never know.

The 13th was a big putt, I think that was the biggest putt of the round, after a bogey on 12. I was a little down on myself and I hit terrible tee shot there and after I made that par putt, I kept us in there [one back]. It must have been 18 feet. 

Then I made one on 15 about 10 feet. I knocked the first putt way past – coming down the stretch, we were all kind of tense out there – and I just knew I had to make those pars.

I was one shot behind on the 16th tee – I didn’t have to look at the leaderboard all day! – but knew I could birdie the 17th so I was calm. But that was a big swing there, Loren missing and me making mine. I had made a couple of big putts leading up to 16, so even if my swing wasn’t in the right rhythm, my putting stroke was. I was pretty confident with my putts. 

Ernie Els

From my first practice round I always hit driver on 17. I think one practice round I hit an iron off the tee to see where it went. But, no, I was always going for the green because I thought I could reach it. The pin was back left again, which made it easy for me because if I missed the green left, I could always chip it up close to the hole and make the putt. We both birdied to get to +3. 

After a pretty good drive on 17, I was always going with the driver on 18. I could take the bunker out of play left and I was just going to smash it as hard as I could down 18. That was when I used to hit it the best! Then when I walked up and saw my ball was right outside a divot I thought, ‘Well, this must be my day.’

On the 11th, the second hole of sudden-death, Loren was set to make bogey. I tried to leave the first putt short! I don’t know how it went past the hole. I suppose I must have hit it too hard – I was pretty nervous at that stage. The one coming back, I didn’t take too much time over. I planned to just get up there and knock it in the hole to get it over and done with. That is exactly what I did.

This thing was never-ending! Ninety holes couldn’t separate us, before I eventually won on the 92nd.

The play-off was crazy with the 7 on the 2nd. So I was 4-over after 2 so to shoot 1-under from there was a good effort! I got off to a horrific start, never really felt comfortable, but just got very deep and brought it out. 

Whenever I had a putt to make I made that putt. I chipped and putted really well. I knew nobody was going to make a lot of birdies – it was a tough day for all three of us.

I’ve never been a really big stat man, but I believe I was the top putter in the field that week. I had a ball on the greens. I just loved the greens. I had a big putter, and I just went on feel. 

Ernie Els on… The aftermath 

I think it is my most special win as it was the first one. When you look back you have to start somewhere and it was a good start to my major career.

I started contending in a lot of majors after ’94, so it really established me as one of the top players. I always thought a US Open would be the last one of the majors I would win, but it was the first. I never thought my game suited it.

So after winning that US Open, I felt like I wanted to get the career Grand Slam. Those things were always childhood dreams of mine.

I gave it a pretty good shot. You need some breaks to go your way and my dream of completing the Grand Slam didn’t quite materialise, but I really gave it a very good shot. 

Ernie Els was talking to Chris Bertram. Keep up to speed with all the latest from the US Open on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.