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An Interview With: Ernie Els

JULIUS MASON: Ernie Els, ladies and gentlemen, joining us at the 86th PGA Championship, making his 13th appearance in the PGA Championship. Welcome to Whistling Straits. Some opening thoughts on what you've seen out there.

ERNIE ELS: Well, it's different and it's unique. It reminds me a little bit of the golf course we played at the Presidents Cup last year in South Africa. It's got a couple of similarities off the tee, but it's a little bit tougher. There's a lot of bunkers out there, so?called bunkers out there. It's a long golf course.

I've played 18 holes today, I played nine holes yesterday, and it looks like it's going to be quite windy.

You know, it kind of looks like a links but it definitely does not play like one. It plays a little bit softer, and you've really got to fly the ball to the green in the air. You can't really run it in there.

It's got some unique short holes, some really good short holes, and it should look really great on television (laughter).

I think it's a great venue. We played 18 off the back tee today. I hit driver, 3-wood and I got it to the green. So I don't know how the other guys feel, but I'm sure they will play 18 off the front if it's into the breeze.

It's a great test. You have to bring your game. You're not going to fluke this one. You've got to really play well here.

Q. The last nine majors have been won by nine players, whereas that one spell where you and Tiger and Mark had multiple majors and everything. Why do you think things have gotten balanced out a little bit, and could it have something to do with the way they are setting up the courses these recent years?

ERNIE ELS: Well, that's a good question. I'm not sure. I don't know why there's been nine one-time major champions in the last nine. It's hard to answer that one.

I wouldn't like to say it's the setup of the golf courses. Everybody has got to play the golf courses. Yeah, I can't really answer that one very well.

I know I've been close quite a few times in those last nine, and I got away with one, but it's hard to say. I think a lot of the times, it's come down to some putting, a lot of the guys have made the putts where they needed to make putts.

You know, it's hard to say the course setup is going to suit one player or the other. I think the Masters probably suits the guys that have been there quite a few times. I mean, anybody can win this week. I would like to think that a guy that hits the ball long will win this week, or maybe it's Phil, maybe it's somebody else. To answer your question, I probably can't.

Q. That was a long non-answer.

ERNIE ELS: Take what you can.

Q. Is it better to be close and in contention in three majors in a row, or does it hurt your confidence because you didn't quite deliver the goods? Is that like the ultimate double-whammy?

ERNIE ELS: You know, I thought I did deliver it, but not quite.

In 2000 when I was second three times, I had a totally different feeling. You know, I was in contention in one of them, at the Masters when Vijay won, and the other couple, Tiger just played too well.

This year, I wasn't too disappointed after the Masters because I felt I almost did as well as I could. At the British Open, you know, especially in the playoff, I really didn't putt the ball well. I had quite a few chances to make birdies and I didn't have too tough of a putt on 17 in the third playoff hole to make that par putt, so I missed every putt. I really didn't feel too good after that, to be honest with you.

So, yeah, I feel a little disappointed. You give so much and you don't really get a lot given back to you, but that's the game, and I've got to live with that. I've got to try and play better, make more putts, and maybe I'll win another one.

So I feel a little disappointed, but taking away from my confidence, no. If you put yourself in that position so many times, you're doing something right. So, you've just got to finish it off a little bit better.

Q. Several years ago you were in this area at the other Kohler and Pete Dye facility. Talk about the comparison of the two courses, and what challenges does this one offer over the other one and how you're going to have to adjust your game?

ERNIE ELS: Well, they are two totally different courses. I think the other one has a lot more water hazards. It's got more of the Pete Dye sleepers, you know, those runaway sleepers that are on some of the greens and fairways. A lot more target golf over there.

The only similarity between the two are the greens. The greens are quite similar in the slope. They are quite undulated on the greens, but that's about it. This course, I feel that Pete Dye is such a great designer, he really took a lot of what he's seen around the world and he's really created something here. He brought a lot of soil in here and he created some holes.

I think some of his favorite holes you've seen around the world, there's a hole on the back nine, we talked about it today, and I think 13 is very similar to a hole I've seen at Ballybunion. Some of the par 3s here are similar to holes in Ireland. This course is a lot different than Backwash Run.

Q. Your previous comments that you have to fly the ball into the green on this course suggests that a player who can get up-and-down, scramble, might have an advantage. Do you think that's going to favor your game?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I think that's going to be a huge factor this week. Depending on the breeze, you know, if it really blows, it's going to be a survival test. The calmer that the weather is, the easier the golf course is going to play, obviously.

Even when it's calm, you're still going to miss fairways, you're going to miss greens. You're going to have to have your whole game here and you're going to have to have a bit of luck, too, because you can miss it short, and if you get a really awful bounce, you can really look at a big number. You can be marginally off and still miss some shots, so you have to get the ball up-and-down. It's going to test your whole game, patience, everything.

So hopefully it favors my game.

Q. To see the length of the course, one would first assume that it's going to favor a long hitter, but I'm wondering if the course, if that's not somewhat deceptive. Does the course expose a weak part of the game of golf, for example, chipping or putting or driving more than any other facet of the game? Is length illusory?

ERNIE ELS: I think the guy that strikes the ball, when you have to strike it off the tee, and preferably long and straight, there's a couple of holes out there, like the 11th hole is a par 5. Today it was playing into the breeze. I mean, I hit a pretty solid drive and I was only about 20 yards onto the fairway. And from there I was about 340 out to the green. From there, it's almost a good par 4 again.

Long and straight is going to help you. Putting is going to be difficult in the breeze. There's a lot of slope on the greens. Greens are pretty fast. And if you ask any player, that's almost the toughest part of the game is when it's really windy, to make putts.

So driving and putting, and everything in between, I guess (laughter).

Q. When you win, but you don't win a major, how do you view your year?

ERNIE ELS: Well, you know, a win is a win nowadays, you know. The fields are so strong, if you're going to win a tournament anywhere in the world, you've got to play good golf. But, you know, majors is what you are really after, what I'm really after.

This year, it's been, I've felt I've played really well. As I said, I don't get too much out of it. But sometimes you look at your year and you haven't won a major -- I've only won three in my career, by the way. And I've had a pretty nice career so far. So, you know, sometimes you look back on the year and I'll have to evaluate my year in December and then look at it. I'll probably feel like I've had a good year. Although, if I don't win this week, you know, I'll still have a good year. I've given myself the chances and I've played consistently. So I would like to think it's still been a good year, even if I don't play well here.

Q. Just to follow-up on that, we've talked to you after the majors this year, and you've been upset over some of them, but there's never a carryover for the next major. Are you just a resilient person, or where does that come from?

ERNIE ELS: Well, yeah. You know, you you've got to move on.

I took two weeks off after the Open. I went down to South Africa and we had a good time down there, blew a little bit of steam off and then you come back. You start working out again, you start practicing again, work on my game and get my mind ready for the next one.

I think that, you know, this game, you lose more than you win, and you've got to take your losses and move on.

As you say, I think after the Open I was quite disappointed. I think you saw that, and it's tough for us to speak to you guys right after a tough loss like that. It's tough to kind of get yourself together.

I'm okay. I'm working on my game again. I feel good about it and I want to get better. Obviously finishing second, you know, there's still a little bit of work left, so I'm trying to do that.

Q. Considering that you can only reach one par 5 I think for the most part, if that, if the conditions are like they are the last couple of days, what do you consider par for the course?

ERNIE ELS: Good question. I'd say 16, you could reach that one in two. No. 2, you could also maybe reach that one, but there's a deep pot bunker short of the green. I played this morning at 7:00 and it was a little breezy but nothing like yesterday afternoon.

If it's half calm, let's say it's playing at 15 to 22, you can shoot something around par and maybe better.

You've got a couple opportunities on the back nine, the way the wind is blowing. It might change tomorrow and it might be a totally different golf course, but you've got some opportunities and you've got to try and stay patient and try and keep big numbers off, and then I think you can shoot around par.

Q. What did you think of 17? And if you miss it left, what can you do, and did you throw a ball down there just because you're the adventurous type?

ERNIE ELS: No, I didn't. I thought I was going to hurt myself. But Stu went down, Stuart Appleby went down, and he actually had half a lie and he got the ball back onto the green. But if you hit it down there, you're just praying for half a shot because it's down a cliff down there and there's all kind of things, so you make a 4 hitting down the left, you're doing great. It's a great test, especially coming in the last couple of holes. You've got to try and hit it out to the right and try and find the green. Today it was a 5-iron, but it could be a 7-iron, it could be a 2-iron. So it's a great hole.

I think 18 is the real test, having played it off the back tee. I mean, I ripped a driver and I hit a 3-wood. I was lucky enough to hit it straight and got it on the green.

We played another ball from the front tee and I hit a 3-iron to the back of the green from the front tee. So it's a hell of a finish.

Q. Would you be surprised if they used that back tee in this kind of wind or do you think they will save that for when the U.S. Open gets here (laughter)?

ERNIE ELS: I'm sure the U.S. Open will use the back tee. And I think the PGA of America will probably look at the conditions. If it's into the wind they will probably use the front tee and if it's downwind they will use the back tee.

Q. Obviously, you're an inch from becoming the first player to ever birdie the last three holes to win a major, the British. Do you ever allow yourself to think about the cruel fine line between this incredible success and what people dub as failure?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, absolutely. I went through it quite a few times. I probably still will.

It's not the first time I lost a major like that. It's happened before. But yeah, when I hit that putt on the 72nd hole, and before I hit the putt, I looked at it, because it was such an awkward line that I had, and I could not be aggressive on it, I couldn't. If I was going to be aggressive, I could miss the hole and hit it six feet by, and I didn't want to have that coming back to tie.

I was trying to just feed it out there and really just feed it into the hole, but I never got it up high enough. Yeah, I mean, I guess as long as I play the game, I'll think about that putt. But, you know, it's one of those things. That's the game of golf. It's a fine line, as you say. Make that putt, you know, you win the tournament and we're laughing and smiling. And I miss the putt and I finish second. It is a fine line that we walk on.

Q. My question is about that Sunday afternoon in Troon, as well. You talked about not being able to putt well in the playoff. Was that a hangover from missing that putt on the 72nd green, do you think?

ERNIE ELS: I don't know. I felt really calm and I felt really good in the playoff, I really did. I felt very confident because I felt I played well coming in.

But for some reason, I couldn't see the line, I couldn't see the proper line. I was trying to hit it on the line that I thought was the right line, but I just couldn't. I just couldn't quite get it on?line, and that was that. I really felt good. I felt calm. I didn't hit a good shot on 17, the third playoff hole. I was trying to get too cute there.

The rest of it, you know, I hit it as good as I could. I just didn't make the putts.

Q. About the winds here, do you find them to be consistent, or you're standing on a tee and hit one shot with one type of wind and then when you get to your ball you have to play from a whole different way because the wind has switched on you or swirling or anything like that?

ERNIE ELS: Well, it's not totally switching all the time. We'd be totally going crazy if that was happening.

Yeah, there's some kind of -- the wind when we started was blowing a little almost straight down the 1st, and then when you made the turn it started switching a little bit to the north, and you could actually feel the temperature drop a little bit. So it was a tiny little switch, but it's really consistent. It's not going all over the place every five minutes.

But the way the golf course is designed, you're playing a lot of the holes a cross?breeze and that makes it tough.

Q. You've experienced different kind of frustrations this year, compared to 2000 when you were finishing second in the first three. Is it in some ways easier to take when it was that year than this year when you're so close?

ERNIE ELS: No, I don't think so. When you come close, you know you were right there, and in 2000, I mean, I got beat by 15 at the U.S. Open and eight at the Open and I think two or three at the Masters. So, you know, it's always nice to be right there, to get right to the edge of things.

I felt I played better this time. I played well back then, but I just got nailed.

Q. I know that winning tournaments and winning majors are your top priority, but is being ranked No. 1 in the world a goal of yours, and being as close as you are to having gotten to that spot, is that something that you feel you have a chance to do in the near future?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, it is. It will be great. I was No. 1 in '97 for a week, I think, and I think '98 for a little bit longer period of time. So I've been there and it's a great feeling.

But what's been happening the last four or five years, it would be really great to be up there now in this day and age. So yeah, it would be great, but my real goal this week is to play well and to play as good as I can, and hopefully that will take care of itself.

I know I've read and I've listened to the reports that after this week if Tiger stays No. 1, it's a new record, all of that, but, you know, again, I can't control what he does. I've got to try and play as well as I can and take care of this week and see what happens after that. But it will be great.

Q. We just had Phil in here detailing his extensive preparation for the championship. Did the urge to come here early strike you? How much preparation did you feel you needed to get to know Whistling Straits?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I had a plan to come here a little bit earlier but it didn't quite materialize. I came here yesterday, and I'm playing a little bit more than I normally do before a major. I'll probably play another 18 tomorrow and really see what happens.

I've been doing my homework. I've been reading up about the golf course before I came here, so I had a half an idea, but still, you have to play it quite a few times.

So yeah, I feel when Thursday comes around, I'll be prepared. Some people do it different ways than others.

Q. I think outside of maybe '95 at Riviera, your results in this major probably clearly your least successful of the four. Is there an explanation for that or is it because it's later in the year and you do so much travel on the front end, a lot of playing in January, February, March, maybe is this -- are you a crispy critter by the time you get to this point of the season or whatever?

ERNIE ELS: It's hard to say because they get great venues. The PGA, they set it up really nice for us and they are not too worried about over par or under par winning. They set it up fair.

So, I'm not sure why I haven't played too well here. I think last year, I finished fifth and that was my best finish since I think '95 when I finished third. So, you know, I'm not sure, maybe it's a bit of fatigue that sets in.

I feel okay this week. I've had two weeks off after the Open and played last week. I think I've got most of the rust out of my game. I feel prepared. I feel ready for this week.

But it's hard to say. I don't know, maybe you're right, maybe I'm a little tired at this time.

Q. How do the outlooks of the other top players change at a time like this when it's wide open compared to the years where Tiger Woods was so dominant?

ERNIE ELS: Well, it's a little different. I think like the gentleman said back there, the last nine majors have been won by nine different players, so something is going on.

The top players in the World Ranking, so to speak, you know, they are still performing well. If you look at Tiger, Phil, myself, Davis, these guys, they are there. But some of the other guys are winning. I'll not sure what the reason is behind it. These guys have really elevated their games, and when they feel that they are playing well a certain week, there's no reason of them not winning.

So I think it's great for the sport. I think it's great for television. You don't just see one or two guys on television all the time. You can see a lot of other people playing golf, and it's great for the sport. I think having so many people involved in the golf tournament on Sunday has got to be a bit more exciting.

Q. You talk about the importance of the majors and that's what you live for, to win these things. With the Career Grand Slam being halfway there and this is an opportunity to get a third, are you hungrier this week for this championship than you might be?

ERNIE ELS: Yes, I am. That is one of my goals, as you said. I would love to do that at the end of my career, and I think this is an opportunity. I think it's a great opportunity. Nobody's really played this course in championship golf before, so everybody starts out fresh here.

And everybody is going to have a different game plan, so it's going to be interesting to see, but, yeah, I've love to win here, obviously, and then, you know, the Masters in April. That would be my Cinderella story, and then I can stop.

JULIUS MASON: Thanks very much, Ernie.

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