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June 1, 2016
THE MODERATOR: Ernie, thanks for joining us here in the interview room at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide. This tournament must mean a lot to you. You haven't missed one since 1994. Can you just speak to what this tournament means to you and your respect for Mr. Nicklaus.
ERNIE ELS: Well, I mean, I just love coming here. I remember, I think '93, I remember watching the duel between Paul Azinger and Payne Stewart. And I remember Paul making that bunker shot on the left side. Obviously, Paul and Payne Stewart were really good friends.
But the golf course reminds me of a setup, almost a major like setup, they get the greens really fast. Mr. Nicklaus tries to get the course firm and running, weather permitting. I think it's only happened maybe once since I played there. He tries to get the course to where the guys can feel like you're playing in something really big.
He's taken a lot of time and effort -- you can see in the pictures here when he built the course and renovated holes. So he takes a lot of pride in this place, and we can feel that. So it's really nice playing here.
THE MODERATOR: Your scoring record here obviously reflects your appreciation of the course, you're below par for all the rounds that you played here. What is it that you like about it so much that suits your game?
ERNIE ELS: It's a risk/reward golf course, isn't it? The fairways are quite generous, and the second shot is where it really gets you. If you're on, you can get it close to some of the flags. There's a lot of feeds in the green that feeds to some of the flag positions if you get it right. But if you get it wrong, it's difficult to make even par. So you've got to be careful while being aggressive. That throws a lot of doubt in your head sometimes, especially when the pressure is on.
And there's some places where you just can't miss it, like front of 18, you know, the ball runs off the front of the green. Some of the par 5s even, you go for the green in two, but if you miss it in the wrong place, it's almost impossible to make birdie.
So it's a great risk/reward golf course, and I just like it because I can hit more fairways here than some of the other places.
Q. Ernie, you talked about this being a risk/reward kind of course and there's certain things you have to do and be careful but at the same time being aggressive. It sounds like you're talking about Oakmont in a lot of ways. There's some holes where you can take some chances. When you won there, did the course change for you very much the second time, and what do you anticipate this time?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, exactly. When I went there the second time, I almost didn't recognize the golf course. I think very recent before that event, it had a big kind of a face lift, if you want to call it that, they put a lot of new bunkers in and they took a lot of trees out. So down the first hole, there were no fairway bunkers in '94, and when we got there in '07, there were bunkers right and left. They did that on quite a few of the golf holes.
They completely renovated No. 17. They elevated the green up, put those deep bunkers around the green. So that all completely changed.
And just the pure -- just looking at it from the clubhouse down and not seeing too many trees. I thought it was a tree-lined golf course when I played there in '94, and when I got there, it was really open. So it was quite a shocking change to me.
I felt that the course wasn't quite grown in in 2007, to be honest. So I wasn't a great fan of it. I have spoken to Mr. Ford and the members who are members up there, and I have not been up there. Although they made me a member, I have not had time to go up there, but I hear it's really much better this year. The changes have been grown in. They've had the mowers in there for quite a few years now, almost ten years again. So I think we're going to have a very different feel for the golf course. I feel it's going to have that feel of it's been here for a while now. It's not this very dramatic change in the golf course.
But it's one of the ultimate tests in U.S. Open golf. You can look at what we had last year. It was a different test, different golf course. We're going to an old classic U.S. Open that's been proven through the years right from back in the day. I'm sure Bobby Jones won there. He's won on many great golf courses. But from those days, every single time we go there, it's just a classic, great test, and I think we're going to have the same kind of thing this year.
Q. Ernie, when you look at that kid who won back in 1994, what strikes you about what you knew then and maybe knew or didn't know then?
ERNIE ELS: He was such a sweet boy. He was such a sweet young man. And even had a sweet girlfriend at the time. Now I think it's obviously the start of -- as I said there, I think I spoke to Mr. Rolfing after the playoff and everything was done. I just said people have to be patient with me because it was such an enormous win, being my first U.S. victory, being the U.S. Open. It sets you up pretty well. I have a ten-year exemption and all that, so I was set every year.
I didn't know much about Oakmont back in '94. Through the years now to really see the winners have come through there, just the iconic venue that Oakmont is, to have won your U.S. Open at Oakmont is just incredible, when I look back now. Just great scenes that day.
Q. Was that lack of knowledge helpful, do you think, that you didn't know how iconic a course it was?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think so. I just played as a young man. I felt for the first time on U.S. soil that I had a lot of confidence in my game, that I -- I was just so glad that I was playing well because I finished second the week before to Lee Janzen. So I was really close to my card, and that was really in the forefront of my mind was to get my card and get established over here.
In '92 and with '93, when I played some invitation events over here, when I got invitations, I didn't do too well. It kind of got into my psyche a little bit. I didn't quite produce my good game, my good golf over here. So eventually, when I got the confidence, I just felt that I wanted to enjoy this golf course. I remember watching the '83 U.S. Open on television, and the holes were very similar to '83 that I could remember. With game, I just played from a bit of memory that I saw on television. So I felt comfortable, and I wanted to do well.
Q. Ernie, can you remember that week, how many practice rounds you played? Did you just go in the week of and play a couple of practice rounds?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, in those days, the way I prepared, I was lucky to get into the major, and I played the tournament before a lot of times, and I was just going on a Monday, and I remember playing quite a few rounds, getting myself familiar with the greens, the pace of the greens, and the lines of the tees and so forth.
Yeah, it was hot the whole week, but I didn't think about heat or trying to kind of spare myself for the tournament rounds. I was just trying to get as much information as I could.
Q. It was hot. That was one lasting image that a lot of us have is Colin Montgomerie wearing a sweater.
ERNIE ELS: A sweater?
Q. He had a sweater on.
ERNIE ELS: Really?
Q. It was hot.
ERNIE ELS: It was -- yeah, we still think of it. The guys who played back then and some of you guys who were out there, I mean, that's one of the lasting impressions, isn't it, is the heat?
I remember watching Mr. Palmer on the Friday playing 18, and then he went to the presser afterwards, and you remember how drenched he was in sweat and how tired he was.
It was just a brutal, brutal week heat-wise. Every day was the same. It was just dead still and just as hot as anybody who's ever been to Singapore or Malaysia. It was that hot, and there was no rain in sight. So it was a tough week.
I remember Chris Patton, the U.S. Amateur champ back then, the big guy, he struggled in the heat, like all of us. But, yeah, we were all just, every day, we were just drenched in water.
Q. Did you make a mental note to yourself after the playoff, don't wear all black?
ERNIE ELS: Well, we all ran out of clothes, didn't we? That's the only thing I can put it down to. Obviously, Colin must have ran out of light clothing. Nobody expected to be in the playoff on a Monday. Nobody entering the week. So I think we all ran out of clothing. I was lucky to have something light. I think I had some gray pants and stuff. But I'm sure he must have been extra warm in black as a Scotsman and 110 degrees. It must have been brutal.
Q. When you think about a tough test as a major should be, if you take the players now and how good and how many of them there are and put them on a course and the winning score is 5 over, 4 over, was there something wrong with the setup?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, that's a good question. I think, in a way, as I said before, I think the changes weren't quite ingrained into the course yet. A lot of the off the fairway and into this bunker, the fairway faces were so steep, and then they let the rough grow up. So when your ball just kind of ran off the fairway, which is not the worst shot in the world, the ball didn't have enough speed to go into the bunker, where you can just hit an 8 iron or something out to maybe get it into the green. Now you were up against the face, and you're just trying to get it back in play.
So I felt -- that's the unfair bit that I felt of the golf course, if you can call anything unfair around there. But I think just the setup purely. They just struggled to get ahead of the curve basically, I thought. They didn't quite get the runoffs right and stuff like that. I think that cost players a lot of golf shots that week.
Q. Generally speaking, can it be a tough test if the winning score is 10 under? Does it have to relate to the score?
ERNIE ELS: Well, 10 under, I think, as a guy running the tournament, you feel that you want the guys to have a bit of a battle, especially at a major. That's the thing that I love about U.S. Opens is that you have to play your best game to get it into red. You've done that, brilliant.
A lot of people will start criticizing the course a little bit if you don't get it under par as players because we're so used to getting our way with the golf course. Some of the toughest courses, guys out here are so good that they've got to get their way. Each and every round, someone's going to shoot a low score. When you see the scoring average at 75 or 76, almost like we had at TPC the other day, that's when you've got to kind of think maybe we've got something not quite according to plan.
But it's kind of nice too to see the guys have a tough time every now and again, but to have that for four rounds, I think you're doing something out of the ordinary that's maybe not quite what it should be.
I believe that Oakmont this year, what I've heard from Bob Ford and everything, I think it's going to be great, a perfect test. And we're going to get some rain up there. So they're going to get innovative, should I say, with some of the flag positions, I'm sure.
Q. Ernie, a couple more things about Oakmont. First of all, do you prefer an Oakmont as opposed to what we had last year, Chambers, where it was a very unusual test for a U.S. Open?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, you know, don't get me wrong, I loved Seattle up there. And I actually enjoyed the golf course. The design was different. It was a newer design. The USGA have so many members country-wide. They play on different courses. They play in public facilities, and it's nice that we've gone to public facilities. And all the courses like Torrey Pines and then the newer public courses, like where we were last year, Chambers Bay.
You know, I wasn't the greatest of fans the way things were set up, absolutely dry and burnt out, but it was a challenge playing. I wouldn't call it unfair either. I think that the greens, the way the greens were running, I was not a fan of that. I felt that the poa annua, because we're so close to the ocean there, the poa annua was still alive, so to speak, and when you have that, you have a very uneven roll.
They obviously, in the run-up to the event, they must have lost a couple of greens because the 7th green was totally relaid, the 13th green -- I remember I counted five greens that were absolutely perfect. The surface was perfect, and it was really speedy. I don't have a problem with that. The problem was when the poa annua came through, and you started getting a roll that was just crazy. It probably cost Dustin the tournament at the end there.
It's nice playing those kinds of courses, but my favorites are the old classic northeastern courses -- Oakmont, Winged Foot, Congressional, you name it. Up here, that's the way I remember U.S. Opens. And here.
Q. Given the way The Open Championship road is, say we see a St. Andrews every five years, shouldn't Oakmont or another course like you mentioned, a Winged Foot, shouldn't they be in the rotation a little more often, you think? You mentioned an iconic U.S. Open golf course. It's been, what, nine years, and before that it was, what, 13 years? It just seems like --
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, you've got to take into consideration the mess we left behind after Merion. I mean, it's just an iconic course if you ever talk about one, and the site is quite small. Everything around it quite small. The whole neighborhood was basically run out of their homes because the tournament gets so big. There's merchandise, and there's all these things that has to go up.
I think, a lot of them being members courses, the members take a beating, and they basically lose their whole summer. I think the run-up to some of these events, that's also a bit of time. A lot of times they play U.S. amateurs at these venues. So it's almost like a five-year program. So I think a lot of these guys, kind of the members kind of say, hey, maybe we should wait a while.
But I would love for golf courses like you just mentioned to be in the rotation all the time because it's my personal favorite. I mean, I love those.
Q. Ernie, you have the top three players this week coming in off of wins. Do you think that's a coincidence, or is there something about the competitiveness of this young group of 20-somethings where you think they're not going to let the other guy get too far ahead?
ERNIE ELS: No, I think there's a great rivalry going on, and I think you're right, I think the guys are very competitive amongst each other. You know, they got big goals. I think they want to rack up as many tournament victories as they can. They obviously feel that they are in some of the prime of their golf. Who knows where they're going to end, you know? Tiger's won 14 majors, and I think these guys have got that on their agenda, should I say. I think they want to go out there and win as many majors as they can, tournaments as they can, and I think it's just the best thing for golf. You know, I think it's just a great way to grow the game.
You're going to have youngsters who are Jordan fans. You're going to have youngsters who are Jason Day fans and Rory fans and Rickie Fowler fans and so forth. So I think the game's just in great shape with great guys who have a lot of fun on and off the course, and that's the way we should show the example to people out there. We have fun out here and have fun away from the course. They compete as hard as anybody. So I think it's in great shape.
Q. Ernie, I'm sure you were well aware of Oakmont's greens and stuff before you first got there, but was there a point in practice or when you got out there and there was an aha moment when you realized, wow, these really are difficult and different maybe than anything you'd seen?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I heard all the rumors that the members play it almost the same speed and all of that, and I was like, no, I've never heard -- you've got to prove it to me.
So I went out there, and absolutely, that golf course must have been built in the 1800s, I'm sure. I'm not sure how old the course is.
But there was no modern machinery that went into building those greens. It was basically the greens would lay on the land that you saw. Like the very first hole, they didn't try to tilt the green back this way. A lot of modern designers now would tilt that green this way because everybody would complain, I'm putting it off the 1st green.
That is the way Oakmont is. What you see is what you get. The undulations, the little mumps and things that you get in the greens is natural, is what was there. They didn't try and plow through it or soften it or anything like that. And then on top of it, the bentgrass grows naturally up there, and you can get it really cut down. So the speed of the greens was probably there. It's been there for the last 70 years or so.
So very difficult greens. I mean, the 1st green goes away from you, and then the 2nd green tilts back into you. The 3rd green is very flat, and the 4th has got some movements. Every green is very different. Again, I can't wait to get there, but I think this week, I think, is a good week to play because they're going to get the greens to about 14, yeah, so you at least can get your touch on really fast surfaces.
I loved putting at Oakmont. I just loved putting there. I think I was No. 1 in putting when I won. I just love the slopes and everything about it.
Q. Jack said if it was 14 at Oakmont, you'd never finish.
ERNIE ELS: I don't know what the Stimp is there, but I think normally on the fourth days, they get those things to very fast. Probably quicker than Mr. Nicklaus' place here, but don't tell him that.
Q. We talked a lot about golf course design and whatnot. I'd be curious, in your line of work as a designer, when they said last week at Wentworth that they're going to redo it and restore it back to its old glory, how does that make you feel, or is that just part of the business?
ERNIE ELS: I don't know about -- since we redid it, it's just been kind of hectic. As I say, you're never going to please everybody. The previous boss I had there, he really wanted the course to have some teeth in it. He wanted it to have water on 18, and he really wanted to get the scores. You talk about scores, he didn't like 20 under par winning the PGA Championship. So he wanted something like from 5 under to 10 under winning.
You know, we had a lot of arguments because I felt the same as a lot of you guys here that, if you get it so tough where we're going to be scoring 4, 5 under par, what's it going to be like for a member? And that's exactly what happened. We've had a lot of pushback from the members and from a lot of players because I guess they -- you know, they were used to shooting 20 under par. When you change a course and when you change the look of some holes -- we spoke about Oakmont the way I didn't like it much when we went in there -- you get some pushback.
The main concern there is for the members. Some of the bunkers are a little bit deep. They're almost like links bunkers. The 8th hole there is a green that's a bit raised. There's water around it. Especially the older members that can't get it over the water, and if they do, they can't hole it on the green, and then it goes off into a bunker, and then they're done because then they can't keep it on the green from out of the bunker. That's obviously a problem.
So we're going to change a lot of that and then see where we go, and still try to keep it as a challenge for the players when they come around for the tournament. So we'll go in there and change some things up again.
Q. You've reached No. 1 in the world, but compare the emotion of that to your wins at Muirfield and Oakmont, Congressional. I mean, what are the difference in the emotions?
ERNIE ELS: Well, they're both excellent. I mean, to eventually get to No. 1 was absolute -- I mean, it's just you're on top of the hill. It just feels surreal. They made all these things official from 1986, and there's not been too many No. 1s in our sport, in the men's part of it. So to get eventually to No. 1 was a great feeling.
I remember the first time, it was only -- it lasted for one week because Greg Norman, back in those days, he won in Memphis, I think. I won the U.S. Open in '97, and he won a week after. But in '98, I had it for like nine weeks. So that was brilliant.
Yeah, it's just a great feeling. But I think, when you win majors, people remember you a bit longer because a major just -- you remember the week, how the guy played, and all of that. No. 1 in the world, you know, people sitting here, there's no official Jason Day as No. 1, but people who are Jordan Spieth fans say, yeah, I think Jordan is No. 1 or I think Rickie's No. 1 or Rory McIlroy is No. 1. But as a major, that debate, you can't go anywhere with that debate. So it's pretty cool.
Q. Ernie, you were talking about the kid who won '94. I was just curious about this point in your career, what do you expect out of yourself as a golfer? And do expectations change as your career unfolds? Do you have to kind of come to grips with certain things? Or do they not change?
ERNIE ELS: You know, in many ways they don't change, but you sometimes got to face facts that your body, especially, is not quite the same as when you are in your 20s. A lot of times, there's a bit of excess baggage through the years. When you play the Tour for 23 years, there's some great things that happen, and there's some stuff that you don't want to remember, but it stays there in the sport, and you've got to deal with that.
You know, expectations is still pretty -- it does change, to be honest with you. When I was in my prime, every week I wanted to win. I felt I could win. And now, not playing good for a while now, you want to try and get back to a level where you can compete, and when the weeks are right, you want to feel like you can really maybe win the tournament.
But, yeah, when you get older, things change a little bit. Your expectation has to change with it. If you don't, you're going to have a pretty rough time out there because I'm going to be 47 this year. There's certain places where these guys are just a little -- they're just a little bit better than you in many places.
I want to enjoy the game. I want to play my best and see where that ends. That's what I want to do right through until I'm into my 50s. We'll see where that goes.
THE MODERATOR: Ernie, we appreciate your time. Thank you for coming in. Good luck on your 23rd start here at the Memorial this week. Thank you.
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