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June 2, 2004

Ernie Els


JOAN v.T. ALEXANDER: Thank you, Ernie, for joining us for a few minutes here in the media center at the Memorial tournament. A couple good finishes here in the last couple of tournaments you've played since The Masters. Why don't you make a couple comments about your game and the course after you played the Pro-Am yesterday.

ERNIE ELS: My game is okay. I've been traveling a little bit. I was in Europe the last two weeks, and before I played in Dallas, so the last few weeks I've been playing okay. I've had some good rounds and some kind of mediocre rounds, but I feel like my game is coming around nicely. My short game is getting a little better. I'm hitting the ball quite nicely, so I can't complain. I just haven't won. I've just got to keep going and working at it and hopefully it'll come by itself.

I'll be playing great golf, in my view, this week. In my view, this is really one of our top golf courses we play on Tour. The way the greens people keep after the course, the condition is the best. That says a lot for our Tour. Jack Nicklaus' tournament, we've got a very strong field here, so you've got your work cut out to win this week. There are a lot of good players.

I've been playing okay, so hopefully everything goes well.

Q. How are the greens compared to past years? I think they're trying to keep a little more growth on them, and I wondered how it's affected the speed.

ERNIE ELS: Well, I've spoken to John Brendle, and he said that Mr. Nicklaus wants these greens running at 14 (laughter). That's very fast. The greens, they've really grown in nicely, as you say. They've taken a lot of trees out around the greens, given it a bit more air and sunlight, and I think that's helped a lot. So the surface itself is beautiful, it's the best I've ever seen it, but in the same breath they're really fast really. We're going to putt on perfect greens this week, very fast, perfect greens.

Q. Is there one part of the game, as you're working to improve and fine-tune, et cetera, that seems to need more work than the other parts, this year in particular?

ERNIE ELS: My long game has come around quite nicely the last couple years. I think it's more steady than it's ever been. But my short game, especially my putting and stuff, on the greens I can become a little bit more consistent, a little better. Last week, for instance, the first round I think I had 24 putts, shot 64, and then I went 32, 33 putts, and then the last round I had 27 putts to shoot 68. It seems like if I get my putting under 30 putts a round I'm going to shoot not a bad score. I've got to try to get more consistent with the putter. I've always been a pretty good putter but never a really great putter.

Q. Pardon the simplicity here, but why do you make putts one day and not the next? Is it something mechanical? Why are you laughing?

ERNIE ELS: It's hard to say. Sometimes my speed is a little off, sometimes -- I'm not sure what it is. I imagine I ought to look at it a little more closely, but sometimes I just feel like I'm going to make putts and the next day I'm a little bit off. It needs a bit more practice, more consistent of a stroke.

Q. Just off topic a little bit, I was at a wine store the other day and I saw one of your bottles of wine. Can you just tell us a little bit about what drew you into the industry and what you enjoy about it, and would you rather have a hole-in-one or a 100 rating from the Wine Spectator?

ERNIE ELS: 100 rating, definitely (laughter). The wine business, I met my wife in Stellenbosch in South Africa. It's a little village near Cape Town and it's where the wine region is in South Africa and they made a lot of good wines. They have a lot of good whites, but they're more in Franschoek, which is another little village. Actually, my partner in the wine business, John Engelbrecht, his father has got his own wine estate, and John at that time was working in the vineyards, farming the vineyards, and he was a golf enthusiast. I met my wife with John, and that evening after the golf tournament we went to John's father's wine estate and we had a barbecue, a braai, and that was our first date at this wine estate. Needless to say, we had quite a few bottles of wine (laughter). We tasted good wine that night, and ever since then with Liesl's parents living in Stellenbosch and John getting out of Stellenbosch -- that's been a whole wine thing, where it comes from, and then I think three or four years ago now we just kind of said, why don't we start our own label. And subsequently now, we've actually bought our own winery, so we're going to be farming some serious wines now and try and get production up.

We've got this wine maker, Louis Strydom, he actually lives in France, in Bordeaux, and since it came up about what kind of wine we're going to make, I kind of like the taste of Bordeaux, it's pretty strong-tasting wine, and it's got all the varieties a classic Bordeaux has, so we went with that.

Now we've got a winery. Now we can run our own business. It's very exciting.

Q. You were defending champion last time you went to Shinnecock. Can you talk a little bit about how you go into that tournament now with that course and you're such a different player than you were back then?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I went to Shinnecock. I played great and missed the cut by one shot. I played with Nick and Tiger there, and I remember that golf course being very different from any other U.S. Open course. It's almost a links-type course, the way you play it. I don't think it's set up like a links, but the weather conditions and the different shots you have to play is not quite what the U.S. Open is all about, but it's definitely a great golf course. It's going to be a great test. I don't know if it was the longest course, but it was very -- you had to be strategic, put the ball in certain areas and go with that.

I remember the 11th hole being a great little par 3, 135 yards or something, and if you hit the green you're happy. It's a great course, and back then I didn't have a great time, but I loved defending there. I really had a great time.

Q. How about the fans? You have the same kind of -- sort of that Bethpage fan, maybe a little more refined, who knows. How do you feel about those people?

ERNIE ELS: I think it's great to go back there again. I don't know if we're going to have as many people as they had at Bethpage. I mean, Bethpage was a big, big area where they could put a lot of people in. I think Shinnecock has got a little different piece of land, a little smaller, it's a different golf course. I don't think they're going to get as many people in there, but I'm sure any New York crowd is a pretty loud crowd. It's great playing there. I love playing there. They let you know what's on their mind.

Q. Do you have a different degree of affection for your two Open titles since one was your first major and one was --

ERNIE ELS: That's a good question. I guess 94 really put me on the map and kind of broke the mold and put me out there and gave me my Tour card and ten-year exemption. I guess 94 is the one.

But 97, I was a little bit more of an established player maybe, and 97 was more -- it's a different feeling, also. 94 was just a survival course. I wasn't sure what the heckling was going on and how I was going to survive this thing, but 97 I put my mind on winning this tournament and it worked out that way. It's two different wins.

Q. If you had to pick a favorite moment from either one of those two victories, would it come from 94 then?

ERNIE ELS: It's tough to answer that one. Yeah, I guess 94. Then again, when I made that putt on 18 in 97, it was probably the most emotion you'll ever see out of me. Both of them are -- it's hard to say.

Q. Jack said yesterday that he doesn't think this course favors long hitters or any particular long hitter because everybody is long now with the clubs and the ball. I wonder, who do you think it favors, and if you ever got a chance to play this course fast, would that change the list?

ERNIE ELS: Honestly, I played it in 94, that was the only time it was ever firm, when Tom Lehman won. He shot four 67s and he won by a country mile. It was firm, fast and we had perfect weather. Since then it's only been soft. I've got to disagree to a certain extent because you get long hitters and you get -- you got a long hitter, he carries it out there 270 with a hot tee ball and the ball pitches and runs another 30 yards and you get 300 yards. Then you get different long hitters where these guys carry it 290, 295, and they don't get as much run as the guy hitting the hot low ball. This week the guy that's carrying the furthest has definitely got an advantage.

I played with Tiger the year he won. He shot 65 in the third round and I shot 72, and it was wet, the way it is now, and the way he hits the ball, he hits a 3-iron as high as I hit my wedge and he carries it 230. I mean, that's just tailor made for him. I think he hit a par 5, hit a 5-iron in there and it stuck. And then 7, he hit his second shot in there with a 2-iron. Nobody else could get there. Maybe I could get there with a 3-wood running it onto the front. He carried the ball onto the front of the green.

You have players like Vijay, Davis, Freddie, Tiger, myself, Hank Kuehne, these type of guys, they carry the ball a lot further and hit their irons higher and further than other guys. It has to be an advantage for them.

But I agree with Jack, you know, I think the hole, too, is long but you get different launch angles.

Q. And if it's fast, what would you --

ERNIE ELS: When it's fast this course is really different. In 94, the 18th hole, you could hit a 3-iron off the tee, and you don't see the slope in the fairway now because it's so soft, but when it's firm you've got to land the ball on the right side of the fairway and try and keep the ball in the fairway on the left side.

Now the ball just pitches and stops. It's totally different. The 2nd hole, another hole, when it's firm the ball runs into the creek, if you're not careful. You can land it on the right side and it'll plug now. It's a much tougher test when it's firm.

Q. Can you talk about your relationship with Jack from reading his books as a youngster to meeting him for the first time? The Masters in 98, you played with him, and even The Presidents Cup where you might have seen a different side of him last November?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, the game of golf is such a wonderful game. I met him the first time in 1989 at Troon. It was my first major as a player. I was 19 years old at the time. I've teased him about it, asked him do you remember, and he doesn't remember, and I don't blame him. I was on the range and he was standing right next to me. I looked at my brother, and I said, "Well, this is Jack Nicklaus," and he came and shook my hand and said good luck and all that. That was the first time I met him.

Then as life goes, I've played with him quite a few times in tournament golf. I've played with him here at this tournament the first two rounds. I'm not sure, two, three, four years ago, and I've played a lot of practice rounds with him, and I'm a partner with him in golf course design now. He kind of looks after me there. I played with him at The Masters in 98.

You know, it's come a long way. That's the game of golf. You can learn from the greatest player who's ever played, and that's just life, and it's great. It's been wonderful to me and my family.

Q. How wet is the course now? And if miraculously there is no more rain, how firm could it get?

ERNIE ELS: There's no way. Maybe the greens, but the fairway is going to be soft all week. I think there's going to be a little bit more rain even this afternoon. We're going to play on a soft golf course again. We played yesterday, the Pro-Am. The wind was blowing. I mean, the rough is very difficult when you get in it, but with the fairways this soft a lot of guys are going to be hitting fairways and the greens are going to be soft. They're going to be fast but they're going to be soft, so you're going to see -- if we have any kind of weather, with that wind, you're going to see low scores this week.

Q. Any bug issues this week?

ERNIE ELS: How about those bugs?

Q. I'm asking you.

ERNIE ELS: I thought we had some big bugs in Africa, but these things, they're noisy and large. It's amazing. It's pretty weird, this thing. They're really loud, too.

Q. Any landed on you?

ERNIE ELS: Oh, yeah, all day. I had a yellow shirt on. Don't put a yellow shirt on (laughter). They come after you.

Q. Kenny Perry said there's so many of them that he wouldn't be surprised if it affects play this week, not the continuation of play, but he said he went to hit a swing and had one fly under his eyes.

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, if they get the angle right they shadow about this big, so you actually get a bit of a fright. I think something big is coming after you. I heard they've kind of gone down now. They're going to calm down, these bugs. We'll see. Especially where there's a lot of trees, there's a lot more of them. And yeah, he's right, when you take your back swing sometimes they kind of fly around you so you might have to stop.

Q. They're supposedly here to mate and die.

ERNIE ELS: Every 17 years or something like that. I don't know, I'm no Jack Hanna so I don't know what it's all about.

Q. You spoke earlier about putting, how one day it's there, one day it's not. A wonder if your comments a couple weeks ago about the belly putter was one of those days where you were a little more candid because you were more frustrated.

ERNIE ELS: I don't think that's the case. There's a journalist back there, I think you guys have traveled with us, John Hopkins from the Times asked me the question what do I think about a belly putter. I wasn't frustrated, I was kind of -- I don't like it. And then the next question was, well, why. I said what I said. I think it's become quite a big issue, quite surprisingly, but I've spoke to Peter Dawson last week and the R & A guys, and I don't think there's any way -- they can't ban it because it's there, but I'm just not for it.

I just saw Freddie Couples out there, and he's like, hey, I've only got a couple years left. Don't start stirring things up (laughter). I spoke to Vijay and a couple of the guys, and it's kind of just the way I felt. It's not because I was frustrated at my own game, not at all, it's just I'm not for it.

Q. Has the reaction of your fellow players largely been kidding around?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, they've been kidding around with me a little bit. I've known these guys most of my career. There's nothing personal against them, it's just that I don't believe that that's the way it was supposed to be played. But that's that. I don't think it's going to be banned. I think whoever uses it, good luck to them.

Q. Can you share the same thing about what Vijay said to you about it?

ERNIE ELS: Well, Vijay, he kept on saying he was going to leave this belly putter in my locker. He still hasn't put it in my locker (laughter).

Q. Do you like playing, when it comes to U.S. Open venues, something that's more straightforward or something that's more variable like a Pinehurst or a Shinnecock?

ERNIE ELS: I've always enjoyed U.S. Opens on tree-lined courses. Again, it's just the way I grew up. I saw Augusta in a certain way and I saw the British Open a certain way and then obviously the U.S. Open. I've seen it played at Winged Foot and Oakmont back in 83 and so forth, so that's the way I see it.

When you play a golf course, especially Shinnecock, and you only do it once every ten years, it's a special place to be and play, but I like a tree-lined course just for the look of it.

Q. Have you been back to Oakmont since -- when was the last time you were back at Oakmont?

ERNIE ELS: I was back at Oakmont four or five years ago before they took out all the trees. I'd like to go back there this year if I can get some time to check it out.

Q. It won't be tree-lined anymore.

ERNIE ELS: I know. It's totally different. They've got these old pictures from Oakmont from way back in the 20s without any trees, and I think it's back to the old look again. The wind doesn't blow in Pennsylvania.

Q. I was just curious what your thoughts were on the World Match Play becoming official.

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think it's a big, big, big prize money, especially for over there, anywhere. They've got a certain criteria of getting into that tournament, and you've got I think four -- you've got the four majors to qualify for it. Players that do play well from both sides of the Atlantic, they can get into that tournament, so be it. If they made the field a little bit bigger -- I mean, 16 players.

Q. What's Sun City now or Nedbank or whatever it's called?

ERNIE ELS: Sun City I think is also 16. Actually I spoke to the guy there, I should have asked him. It's always been 12, hasn't it?

Q. I think so. Do you think that should not be?

ERNIE ELS: That's not official for anything. I think they're starting to get World Ranking points for that tournament.

Q. Sun City?

ERNIE ELS: Sun City, yes.

Q. Is that fair when it's such a limited field?

ERNIE ELS: Well, the Sun City event, they've taken it off the World Rankings now for the chance of getting World Rankings points because more guys might come down there because you can make good points. Normally they have a strong field so they made some good points, but I think coming back to the World Match Play, I think all in all it's not a bad idea to get it official.

Q. When you were speaking --

ERNIE ELS: You have to qualify for it.

Q. When you were speaking about the bugs, and bugs maybe being a factor, I assume just the sudden movement in the shadows, not the noises in the trees, would be more of a factor. The noise is not a factor that much?

ERNIE ELS: There's quite a buzz out there, I'll tell you.

Q. Is it distracting?

ERNIE ELS: No, not really. It's just different. It's a different noise. You don't really hear the crowd it's so loud. On occasion when it flies near you or around you, obviously you back off. They're pretty big, it's not like a fly sitting on you.

Q. Do you like when they played Westchester before the U.S. Open? Is that a good primer for the Open? And would you love a chance to get up to Shinnecock before U.S. Open week?

ERNIE ELS: I was going to go there Monday. But I like the Buick Classic, Westchester. I think you get used to the type of grass, especially on the greens. It's a kind of poa annua grass, it's very slopey, so you can get your speed right and it's the kind of slope you're going to get at the U.S. Open. Westchester is a little bit shorter now. You're hitting a lot of 3-woods and 2-irons off the tees so it's a little easier to keep the ball in play than at the U.S. Open.

In the past it's been a great tune-up, maybe not so much this year because of Shinnecock being out in Long Island, and the wind is going to blow and be a little different, but normally it's a good tune-up.

End of FastScripts.

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