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June 10, 2003

Ernie Els


RAND JERRIS: It's a pleasure to be joined now by two-time U.S. Open champion, Ernie Els, with victories in 1994 and 1997. Ernie, your two victories in the Open came on some sort of classic golf courses. How would you compare the course here at Olympia Fields with the courses at Congressional or Oakmont?

ERNIE ELS: It's absolutely exactly the same. If you look at it, it's a classical golf course. It's not playing all that long, but I think the way USGA set it up this year it's very fair at the moment. The greens are very difficult. The greens are very undulated. They've got a lot of break on them. So basically it's exactly the same as any other U.S. Open. They normally get a nice, old traditional golf course for us to play on and set it up really difficult. The rough is up always. The greens are going to be full and fast. And you get to the end of the party you're going to have a really good tournament.

RAND JERRIS: You've had some trouble with the wrist injury. Going into this week, how are you feeling.

ERNIE ELS: The wrist is not an issue at all. I had some problems with it going into The Masters this year and unfortunately I didn't have quite the run up I wanted to have into that event. But I still had a pretty decent finish there. The rest has been really good. It hurt when I had to play in Germany, and I pulled out of that tournament. But I had a week off, and I played in England and had a good tournament. I played at Muirfield Village, but I didn't putt well. I had a nice week last week, worked on my game and did everything I could do to be a hundred percent prepared for this week. And I feel like everything is going kind of according to plan.

Q. The start of this year was so magical for you. Was that a case of every putt that you struck fell and that now putts aren't falling or is there -- is that it or has something changed in your game or is everything the same?

ERNIE ELS: No, I think that's basically what it is. I came back from Dubai and then I had that injury when I went into Bay Hill, where I probably shouldn't have played. But I didn't want that to affect me, and it did. I had to pull out of TPC. And as I said, those two weeks before The Masters was two tough weeks for me, because I felt I was on such great form, but I couldn't play because of the injury. And then I went into The Masters and we all know what happened there.

Since then I've felt pretty good, but my putter has let me down a little bit, especially at the Memorial, and even at Wentworth. I don't feel very comfortable with the putter. But I spent a lot of time last week, and so it's just a matter of time, I think, before I start playing the way I want to play again. I'm not too far away.

Q. Ernie, can you talk about the pressure that exists in an Open and how it's different than maybe other Tour events and what's the worst pressure you ever felt in an Open?

ERNIE ELS: Well, there's two times I can think about of the pressure. Oakmont was probably the most I've ever felt in my life. And then obviously at Congressional, also. I had to make about a four- or five-footer on the 18th to win the tournament. So I felt it there. The pressure at the U.S. Open is very similar to any other major and that means it's a lot different than any other TOUR event. I think the closest tournament coming to this is probably the TPC event.

Don't get me wrong, there is pressure on each and every PGA event, but the Majors just mean so much more to us as players. And sometimes we get in our own way. And other times when you feel your game is on form, you just play. That's the way I felt the times that I won, although those crucial shots at the end, you feel the heat.

Q. I wanted to ask, we've seen Sergio and we've seen Colin Montgomerie just to name two, who seem to be having a lot of trouble after making equipment switches. You changed from Taylor Made to Titleist, and you come out and have no problems; you win your first three events. Can you talk about what it's like when you switch equipment and why you seemingly had no problems, and yet other people have such tremendous troubles?

ERNIE ELS: Well, it's hard for me to talk about other players. Myself, I was excited to change to Titleist. I only had a couple of weeks because my contract went all the way through December 31, so I couldn't really go to any other equipment. That would have been not good for my other contract. So like in December I got a couple of sets of clubs and a couple of drivers, and at that time of the year I have holiday, I don't play a lot of golf that time of the year. So it was kind of surprising that I liked it so much, because I think I was more excited than anything else.

And then when I started hitting balls I was excited about playing, and these clubs really felt good. I was going to switch to a muscle-back iron at the end of my contract with Taylor Made, anyway, and I didn't do that, I played with those cavity-backs throughout the year, so I was excited to go into that kind of designed club. And Titleist came up with a muscle-back and I went into it. The driver, the very first time I hit the driver, it was just perfect. It was just beautiful. So I was just kind of lucky, I guess. I really enjoyed my switch.

Q. Three different guys have won the last three majors, obviously, you being one of them. Does that say anything in terms of whether people are starting to catch up to you-know-who or he's coming back a little, or is that just the game?

ERNIE ELS: No, I've got to say that's just the game. I think that tells you how tough it is to win a major. Tiger's 27 years old, he's won eight majors. That's very, very good. And I'm 33, I've won three majors. You're not always going to have it your way. You're going to have players playing better than you at times. That's just the way it is.

I think throughout the history of the game you saw guys really play hot golf and have it their way. You look at Tom Watson, I think in a five-year span, I think he won seven majors or something. When your time is right, you've got to grab it. And other times when you're not on your game, you're going to have other players playing better. But still, to be 27 years old to have eight majors is quite incredible.

Q. Just to follow up for a second, did it make you -- was it an incentive to you to work harder, do more, get in the gym?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I would say yes, yes and no. Obviously when Tiger came through four or five years ago, I think the way he came on to the Tour with such a bang, I think it changed a lot of players' outlook and the way we approached the game. And I would say he was a big change in the ways that we've changed. But your career goes on. And I just basically had to start working out. I'm getting on and I'm 33, and to play my best golf I feel I have to be in good physical shape and work hard on my game.

Q. You talked about how majors mean so much more to the players. Does that make your hot streak any more of a mixed blessing, because you were playing awesome golf but the Majors were several months away?

ERNIE ELS: Not at all. My mindset, when I play a tournament, I want to try to win the golf tournament. And when I was playing that well, and I was making those putts and just being in the groove, and I was flying a lot, too. I was all over the place. But I just enjoyed it. I played in the tournaments and I felt I wanted to win the tournaments and that still hasn't changed. My run up to The Masters, as I said before, wasn't the greatest, but that's just the way it was, and I had to cope with that and I did that.

You come into a tournament, you want to be fresh mentally and physically and you want to be prepared and I feel I am -- I feel that way this week, so we'll see.

Q. You've said before that one of the traps that you fell into in the past was going into a tournament like this or any tournament and competing against one player or several players, and you've sort of changed your philosophy to now worrying about playing the golf course. How difficult is it to not revert back to that old way of thinking, and how successful have you been?

ERNIE ELS: I've been successful and I haven't been. Some tournament play, I felt I made big mistakes down the stretch this year, at the Heritage Classic. I made such a nice run at it, and I started looking on the leaderboard, and just trying to get it to the house, instead of doing what I was doing. And other times I kept grinding it out and I won tournaments. So we're not perfect. We still make mistakes, but at least if you can learn from those mistakes, and try not to do it next time when you're out there, I think that's what the game is all about. You go out there to win, it doesn't work out, I learn from that.

And yes, I think you're right. I did mention that a couple of years ago. And since then I've been -- my approach has been different coming into golf tournaments. So, yeah, I think I've changed that. But as I say, we're human; you fall back into maybe mistakes you've made. It all depends on how you feel on a day and how things are going and how mentally strong you are on the day.

Q. What do you know or think of your amateur partner this week and also what do you think of the group you're playing in, which is so obviously center stage, for the first two days?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think that's traditional grouping. I remember when I won the last -- I won the first U.S. Open, I played with Nick Price, who was the British Open champion, and the U.S. Amateur champion then was Tiger. That was in 95. And now things have changed. Eight years later I'm playing with an amateur champion who is Ricky Barnes and Tiger, who is the British Open champion. So I think it's a great grouping. I think obviously I'd like to see how Ricky plays. I've played so many times with Tiger now, I know what he does. But Ricky, I mean, I'd like to see how he plays. There's quite a bit of hype about him at the Masters, we played so well. He's a big, strong guy. And I'd like to see how he rips it past us Thursday.

Q. Do you feel that some guys have made a mistake in making their trips to the weight room about getting better to beat Tiger as opposed to improving their own games?

ERNIE ELS: I think there's nothing wrong with the weight room, but I think you can only go that far to try and increase your distance. I think a lot has been said and written about distance and I don't think that's going to help you this week. I think this week is going to be accuracy, shaping your shots and your short game. I think a golf course like Muirfield Village, that was a golf course where you wanted distance, because the fairways are wide, soft conditions, the longer you hit it, the better for you. But major championships, I don't care how long they make the golf course, you've got to be accurate and you've got to be on your game in all aspects of your setup, of your game. So that's what's going to count this week.

Q. In terms of a motivation to try to improve yourself, is it better to try to get better for your own game or better to try to get better to beat Tiger?

ERNIE ELS: Well, Tiger is No. 1 in the world, so it depends on how your motivation goes. Some guys want to motivate in certain ways. And I'm sure younger guys come out and they want to beat Tiger. Tiger is going to beat us 70 percent of the time, so in that way they're right. But other times he's not there. So you've just got to plug away and do your thing. My motivation is a little different. I've got certain goals that I want to achieve in my career and hopefully I don't have to go through Tiger if he's not there, but if he's there you've got to do what you have to do. So there's different ways, again, of motivating yourself.

Q. You mentioned that when you get hot you've got to try to stay hot and ride it out as long as you can. The guy that's been hot these past couple weeks has been Kenny Perry. How impressed have you been with what he's been able to do?

ERNIE ELS: What he's done the last couple of weeks has been incredible, winning at Colonial, obviously with the spotlight on other things, on another player, I should say. But he came through, he played great. I actually watched that on television a little bit. I was over in Europe, I watched it. And then he played at Muirfield, and the round he played great was in the third round. The conditions were tough, it was blowing so hard and so cold and he played a great round of golf. That probably won him the tournament. He ran out of a bit of steam at the end, but it's very, very common in those kind of situations. But he's obviously hot, he's playing great, and I think this golf course suits him again.

Q. As a follow-up to the earlier question, you played in the British Open as an amateur, and you were candid in saying that was a nerve-wracking experience at that age. The amateurs that are playing here this week seem to have a different mentality. Is it conceivable for them to contend? And of the three majors amateurs can play in, which one is it possible that they could win one of those three Grand Slam events?

ERNIE ELS: I think you're right. When I went out, I was 19 when I played at the British Open. And I was just -- I was almost too nervous to get on to the practice range. And when I got there, there was a spot open next to Jack Nicklaus, and I just slid in there behind him, very quietly. He turned around and said hello. I almost wet myself (laughter), but that was my first meeting with Jack. Yeah, I played practice rounds there with Nick Price and some of the other South Africans. But I missed the cut by two shots in the end. But there was no way I was going to contend, I was just way too nervous.

I agree that the amateurs come out now, they look more confident. They're definitely in better shape than what we were at their age. So I think they've really gone past us in that category. But as an amateur playing in these kind of events, if you're making the cut you're doing well. You don't play golf tournaments like -- golf courses like this, maybe except for a U.S. Amateur, and that's in a match play event, you're not keeping score. So it's difficult for them to really contend.

I think with the media spotlight on golf so much now, more than 10, 12 years ago, it will be difficult for them. But they're coming in, they're having a great time. They play with nice guys, I mean good players, and they basically are here to have a good time and learn. I think if they have a chance through two rounds, I don't think they'll get too scared. But it will be tough for them.

Q. When Phil was here earlier he indicated that because of the length of the course and because of the undulations of the greens, there will be holes that he'll be more aggressive than he normally would be, to try to hit the shorter iron. Do you agree with that assessment, and if so, where would that be, what holes?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I can agree with that. Also depending on where you're at in the golf tournament. I think you've got to take that into the equation. And there's a couple of holes, these dogleg holes, and you can lay up with maybe a 2- or 3-iron and go in with a 6- or 7-iron to these greens. Some of these greens are very small but very undulating. You've got to try to get it into the right side of the green and try to put yourself under the hole. Obviously that's easier with a shorter iron into the greens.

But then again, you've got to hit the fairway. So if you miss the fairways with your driver and you're very aggressive, you might get lucky and get good lies in the rough. But if you have a nice lie in the rough, it's still hard to control the ball out of there. So it's going to be -- you can be, in a certain time in the event, I think you can be quite aggressive and try to shoot a low score. But if you're going to try to do that for four days, I don't know if that's going to be the right strategy.

But certainly some holes, like No. 10, it's a dogleg left, I just hit 2-iron off the tee and I went in with an 8-iron. Vijay played with a driver, and he only had a sand wedge in there. 11th hole, similar, there's one up the hill there at 13. 14, there's another one. Even 16, you can take it over the left bunker there. And 2, that's one where you can take it over the left side or you can go to the right side and take an 8-iron in. So it all depends on how you feel on the day.

Q. You had a great run starting actually late last year and into early this year and I was wondering what the keys were to that. Was it something mentally or something you worked on in the game itself? And then secondly, how does it feel when you have that? Is there much difference between having that kind of run and then not winning? Is it that fine of a line?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think when you have a run like that, everything is in place. Your physical side is in place. You feel good about your swing. There's not too many swing thoughts going off in your head. So you can get up, see your target and basically just go at it. And you feel less pressure within yourself because of your golf game being there. Then you can enjoy it a little bit more. You can experiment a little bit out there, also, take longer clubs on certain holes and really play the game that you want to play.

Obviously when you get on your short game, it's there. You hit it on the green, you see the line very clearly, you feel the speed already and you just basically go ahead and play golf and not think about it. That happens -- I would like it to happen more often, obviously. But at least when it did happen I took advantage of that. I went after it and I won the golf tournaments that I wanted to win. And since then, as I said to you earlier, the putting has been a little bit off and the short game here and there. And then you start thinking about it a little bit.

So what I did basically last week was simplify it again and hopefully I'll start this week and have another run.

Q. Here in Chicago, I'm not sure if you're familiar, the past couple of years there's been a couple of incidents at baseball games where some fans obviously maybe had a little too much to drink and have run on to the field and created quite a problem. As players, professional athletes, are you concerned at all the possibility at a golf event, with the amount of tents around here and the amount of enjoyment that people have that that could encroach upon the golf course?

ERNIE ELS: I think fans, booze, that kind of goes with sports these days. You sit in the stands and have a couple of beers. And if you like a guy, you let him know that you like him. If you don't like a guy, you can also do the same, you know. I guess that's the way it is out there nowadays. Golf tournaments -- I remember last year at Bethpage, we had quite a vocal crowd there. It's basically just having a couple of beers, and what they did with Sergio, I didn't like that too much.

But this is modern day sports now. And we've probably got a little bit of a different crowd nowadays. In a way it's good, at least we've got their attention.

RAND JERRIS: Thanks very much for your time and we wish you luck this week.

End of FastScripts....

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