PGA Tour players have returned to Congressional Country Club this week for the first time since the memorable 1997 U.S. Open. Most players raved about the condition of the golf course and the quality of the field for the Booz Allen Classic, which starts tomorrow. But no man on the grounds was happier to return yesterday than Ernie Els, who won that Open with a bravura come-from-behind performance that included a final-round 69 and a one-shot victory over Colin Montgomerie.
At a clubhouse entrance not far from the men's locker room, a replica of the silver U.S. Open trophy is displayed behind thick glass, surrounded by a number of pictures of Els hoisting it that Father's Day in 1997, along with a framed letter he sent to the members thanking them for their hospitality and for providing such a wonderful venue for the championship that week.
"The memories are fond memories," Els said before playing a late practice round yesterday on Congressional's Blue course, essentially the same layout where he won his second U.S. Open title. "I was 27, and it seems like just yesterday. I remember a lot of shots I made, and when I made the putt at 18, it's probably the most emotion I've ever shown."
Els recalls another memorable shot: Tied with playing partner Montgomerie after 16 holes, Els hit a 3-wood off the tee into the fairway, and then, "I hit a 5-iron in there that was probably one of the best shots I've ever played under pressure." He two-putted from 12 feet while Montgomerie made bogey. Els said he would remember that 5-iron "for a long time."
Els has since added a British Open to his major championship collection, and has been close many other times, with six second-place major finishes.
Last year, he lost by a shot in the Masters when Phil Mickelson made his 18-footer at the 72nd hole for his first major title. Then Els lost to journeyman Todd Hamilton at the British Open at Royal Troon in a four-hole aggregate playoff.
Els would seem to be in the very prime of his career as he comes into this week's event, even if he hasn't won on the PGA Tour this season. As always though, the South African has played his typical international schedule, globe-hopping to three victories on the European tour in Qatar, Dubai and China, with five top-five finishes in his seven starts on the circuit.
Els now has his primary residence outside London, but still has homes in South Africa and Orlando. He said at some point he likely will be playing more golf on the PGA Tour, but his recent purchase of a new G5 jet plane that will be delivered next June would seem to indicate his globe-hopping days are far from over.
"As a whole, I'll keep traveling," Els said yesterday, minutes after calling home to England. "That is my brand. I play worldwide golf. I guess myself and [South African] Gary Player. It's just hard to play in one place. It gets harder being away from home. My little girl is just having a bath now. We've made a conscious decision that I won't be away from home more than two weeks.
"But even guys in America, even if you live in Florida, you're still away. Two hours or 10 hours, it's still away. It's a tough life we lead. You've just got to deal with it."
It has obviously been a rewarding life as well for one of the most popular and talented players in the world. Though he has always been dubbed "The Big Easy," Els still smolders to win more tournaments, especially major championships.
He also has become one of the game's favorite players, among the fans and his peers.
Australian Adam Scott, the 24-year-old defending champion of the Booz Allen, recalled being paired with Els in two rounds of the alternate shot format in the Presidents Cup contested in South Africa two years ago.
"It was one of the greatest experiences I've had in golf," Scott said.
"What I learned was quite incredible. It really boosted my confidence and taught me a lot about the game. We were two down with three to play in our first match and I was getting a little disappointed thinking I'd be losing my first match. He kept saying, 'Let's keep them on the course, stay calm,' things like that. We won the last three holes, in that atmosphere, with him being the king of South Africa; that was special."
In addition to switching his main base of operations from Orlando to the London suburbs and moving up on the jet plane food chain, Els has made a few other changes in his life lately. He recently switched to lighter and slightly softer shafts in his clubs -- "for a little more kick down there" -- and is still adjusting to the feel, especially with his irons. He also has changed management firms, from Cleveland-based IMG to a European firm run by Chubby Chandler, who manages Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, among many others.
"I'm not going to give you reasons or anything like that" for the switch in agents, he said. "I felt like I needed a change, and that was that." Els also has become heavily involved with a different labor of love. He is now a partner with friend and longtime vintner Jean Englebrech in a 95-acre vineyard back home in South Africa. They've already put out the Ernie Els Stellenbosch, a 2000 Bordeaux blend that Wine Spectator magazine called "gorgeous, with polished currant, cocoa, boysenberry and toast aromas supported by a seamless texture." Said Els, with a sly smile, "After tasting a lot of wine, I knew what I liked."