-- No stranger to the resolve and shot-making required to win a major championship, Ernie Els steeled himself after the third round of the U.S. Open and offered a salvo to his peers near the top: "I'd just like to be in the chase, and watch out for me."
Shinnecock Hills, toughened up thanks to stiff winds overnight and bright sun in the morning, was having none of that. And hole by hole, bogey after bogey, Els came undone, until by No. 14 the three-time major champion had fallen well down the leader board.
"That's as hard as a U.S. Open gets right there," said Els, who started the final round at 3 under, ballooned to 7 over on the back and finished tied for ninth. His round of 10-over 80 was his personal worst at the U.S. Open and out of character for the 14-time PGA Tour winner whose smooth swing conquered Congressional in 1997 and Oakmont in 1994.
"I was very surprised he struggled today," said his good friend and playing partner Retief Goosen, the eventual champion. "After the front nine, I think he was in salvage mode because he knew he was out of it."
The precipitous fall Sunday began at the first hole. He had a double-bogey 6 after he missed the fairway with his tee shot and missed the green with his approach. Els got one back at the par-4 third, then all but eliminated himself from contention with bogey or worse on four of the next five holes.
Els missed the fairways at Nos. 4 and 5 and missed the slick green at No. 7, ending up each time with bogey. He gladly would have accepted that fate on Nos. 8 and 10.
At the eighth, Els landed his tee shot in the short grass but could not get his approach to stay on the sloping green protected by three bunkers. "Where they put the flag and the way the green was playing, you had no chance," he said.
The ball instead rolled into the deep rough, where Els chipped to the fringe from a buried downhill lie. Another chip got him to six feet, and he pushed his bogey putt.
Putting continued to betray Els at the 10th. After failing to hold the green with his approach, he chipped to four feet, then bumped his putt a few feet past the hole. Els missed the comebacker and tapped in for a 6 that left him 5 over.
The rest of his round included not only engagement with the course but some contention from the galleries that made it clear Phil Mickelson was their choice. As Els walked toward the 14th tee with Goosen, one heckler yelled, "Been a long day, Ernie. Bring your lunch. Reminds me of Bethpage."
Two years ago at that U.S. Open venue about 60 miles west of Shinnecock, Els shot a final-round 74 and wound up tied for 24th.
That jibe on Sunday appeared to rattle both Goosen and Els. Els turned around and raised his outstretched arms as if to wonder what else could go wrong. The answer came in the form of his fourth and final double bogey at No. 14 that punctuated one of the most exasperating days of his 11 years on the PGA Tour.