He looked old, tired, beat up and worn down Sunday afternoon as his spikes clacked along the stone pathway outside the clubhouse at Oakmont Country Club. Ernie Els’ U.S. Open adventure had ended, and not on a high note.
He tied for 51st after a fourth-round 78 and finished at 21 over par 301, in the heat and humidity, not to mention the diminished expectations.
At the clubhouse steps, Els was met by Chubby Chandler, his agent, and the conversation was brief. It didn’t take long for Els to make his retreat from Oakmont. He left by himself, not at all like his last exit in 1994, when he took the U.S. Open trophy along with him.
Right now, it’s officially open season for dissecting the prospects for Els, the once and maybe never again major champion.
He hasn’t won a PGA Tour event in three years, the knee that he injured two years ago is still bothering him, he has zero momentum and if that’s not enough, his short game is in shreds.
Els, 37, resorted to putting cross-handed at the Memorial, but he dumped that strategy this week about as soon as he walked through the front gate.
The last time Els played the U.S. Open here at Oakmont, he was a rosy-cheeked 24-year-old with the kind of game that crackled with firepower. But Els didn’t just flash brute force; he had the soft hands of a safecracker.
He won the Open here in his first try, won it again in 1997 at Congressional and won the British Open in 2002. That’s a nice calling card for a Hall of Fame introduction, and it doesn’t even mention 12 other PGA Tour victories or the 23 he has won on the European Tour.
But that golden Oakmont was 13 years ago, and this is no longer the same Els.
The way it’s measured, 13 golf years might as well be light-years. Els started going in the wrong direction when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while on a sailing vacation in the Mediterranean with his family.
The ruptured ACL was replaced with tendons from Els’ hamstrings to restore the knee’s rotational stability that were held in the bone around the knee using small screws and anchors.
The good news is that Els recovered. The bad news is that it was the wrong leg for a golfer to injure.
“That injury is pretty significant,” Tiger Woods said. “When you rupture an ACL and you have reconstructive surgery, it’s not something you come back from right away.
“It happened on probably the wrong leg. If it happened on the right leg, he could get away with it, but the left leg, it’s your impact leg and a lot of torque goes through that area.
“Overall, you can see the talent that he has, and I think anyone will admit that once he gets it going, he can pretty much win any tournament.”
Maybe, but Els hasn’t had it going.
His only top 10 since February, when he tied for third at Riviera, was the week after the Masters -- a second in the Verizon Heritage. At Augusta, he missed the cut, the first time he has done that in the Masters since 1995.
Els said he’s a better player now, and he might be, although that’s certainly not clear.
“My golf swing is a lot different.... My putting touch, you know, on the other hand, I made a lot of putts back then and that’s why I won in 1994,” he said. “Other than that, I feel obviously more experienced. I feel I’ve had a couple of hits in my career, but I’ve had some good wins.
“It’s hard to say. I guess I am a better player, but I’d like to make more putts.”
It’s also hard to say what Els would have accomplished if he hadn’t had the misfortune of running into the career path of Woods. With Woods cleaning up in the majors, there haven’t been many left to go around.
His place in history is secure, even if his present isn’t. Els needs to turn that part around, if he still can, but chances are it’s not going to get any easier.