This is the third in a series of stories looking back at USGA championships held at Congressional Country Club, site of this year’s U.S. Open. Previous articles featured Tom Weiskopf’s win at the 1995 U.S. Senior Open and Gay Brewer’s triumph at the 1949 U.S. Junior Amateur.
Ernie Els was still relatively new on the world stage when he outlasted Loren Roberts and Europe’s most consistent threat, Colin Montgomerie, in a playoff to win the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club outside of Pittsburgh.
Three years later, when the 97th U.S. Open Championship was contested at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., Els was considered one of the favorites. And for good reason. He had backed up his first major title with other PGA Tour victories and high finishes in majors, including a tie for fifth in the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, near Detroit.
Nevertheless, entering the 1997 Open at Congressional, Els wasn’t necessarily on form, with just one top-10 finish for the year and a missed cut at the Kemper Open in nearby Potomac, Md., that preceded the U.S. Open.
“I didn’t have the highest confidence [at the time], but I remember how much I liked the golf course,” the big South African said. “And by then I kind of knew what I was doing. In 1994, I didn’t have quite the grasp of my game, but I played very well, obviously.”
And by 1997, he was playing with a disposition that reflected his nickname, the Big Easy, a necessary attribute to go along with sharp shot-making on what was then the longest U.S. Open course in history. Congressional’s par-70 Blue Course measured 7,213 yards.
“You hate bad shots [and] try and recover as quickly as you can and take it from there. When you have made a bogey, you know, don't get too hard on yourself because par is not a bad score out there,” said Els of his mindset and approach to handling Open pressure. “So that is what I keep on trying to think about when I have had a bad start, a couple of bogeys, just try and stabilize yourself and try and do the best you can. It is not like I am super cool out there. I do get angry, and it is just like anybody else, but you can’t get too far ahead of yourself; just stay in the present and play as hard as you can.”
Els certainly had the presence of mind to keep his head when everyone around him was losing theirs. A hot and intense final round required cool thinking, and it was Els who emerged again, fighting off a trio of contenders, including Montgomerie, to win his second Open title. Els parred the final five holes at Congressional for a 1-under 69 and edged Montgomerie by a shot with a 4-under 276 total. Montgomerie also closed with 69, but his untimely bogey at the par-4 17thwas all the daylight Els needed to become the 17th player to win multiple Open titles.
American Tom Lehman, who entered the final round with a two-shot lead – the third year in a row he had led after 54 holes, a feat not seen since Bob Jones in 1928-30 – saw the national title elude him again. After a bogey at 16, he also experienced agony at the 17th when he pulled his 7-iron approach shot into the water and made a costly 5. He ended up two strokes back in third place after a 73. The previous two years he had been runner-up. Fellow American and playing partner Jeff Maggert was fourth at 74-281, having played the last four holes in four over par.
“There was a four-way shootout, and I was fortunate enough to get through it,” said Els.
If there was one key shot to his final round, it was a chip-in birdie on the par-4 10th hole from the front of the green that lifted Els into a tie for the lead with Lehman, Montgomerie and Maggert.
But the most crucial stretch was earlier in the day, when Els and a handful of other players had to complete the third round, which had carried over because of inclement weather earlier in the week. Els played those five holes in three under with three consecutive birdies starting at No. 15. It got him back into the championship after he had slipped a bit on Saturday.
“I hit some really key shots that morning,” said Els, who capped off a 69 that set him up for a pairing with Montgomerie in the penultimate group. “I birdied 17, I tapped it in for birdie, and I birdied the par-5 15th hole, and I made a really good par save on the 14th hole. So those were really big saves I made, and gave me a little bit of belief into the final day. [I] came back and played a really solid final round. But I putted so well that week. That whole week, I made some good putts.”
Els converted a succession of big putts down the stretch. His two-putt from 18 feet after a solid 5-iron from 212 yards at the 17th gave him the only par among the four contenders. Montgomerie missed the green left, chipped to 5 feet, and after a long delay to let the crowd settle down on the nearby par-3 18th, he failed to save par. Els played the 18th with a safe 5-iron to 30 feet and two putts, the second a knee-knocker from 5 feet. Montgomerie missed a 25-footer to force another playoff, three years after Oakmont.
“It’s getting me down, this major business,” said Montgomerie in the aftermath, amid tears of disappointment. “I felt good out there today. I didn’t feel I was under pressure. I just have to be patient.”
Lehman was equally crushed after seeing another 54-hole lead evaporate in the Open. “I really believe that I’m mentally tough enough,” he said. “I have enough confidence. I believe that I’m patient enough. I believe that I’m good enough. I haven’t backed down. I haven’t wimped out. I haven’t choked my guts out. It just hasn’t happened.”
For Els, 27 at the time, his second Open seemed more significant to him. “The first one was out of the blue,” he said. “This one seems so much more.”
Playing in his 41st consecutive U.S. Open, four-time winner Jack Nicklaus, at 57, became the oldest player in championship history to survive the cut, and he went on to finish tied for 52nd at 13-over 293. His son, Gary, also competed, marking the fourth time that a father-son tandem had appeared in the same Open field, though Gary missed the cut after carding 77-73-150.
Tiger Woods, who had won the Masters in record fashion two months earlier, rebounded from a first-round 74 to share 19th place.
Els liked Congressional in his first encounter. That it recently has undergone a renovation at the hands of Rees Jones, who has redesigned a number of U.S. Open courses, wasn’t going to change his mind about the place. One of the key changes is that the closing hole from ’97, the par 3, is now the 10th hole – although it now plays away from the clubhouse – and the challenging, former 17th is the home hole.
“Congressional, I can't wait to get there,” he said. “I’ve seen the changes and so forth, and that's going to be an interesting week. The order of the holes, it’s going to be that much more challenging.”
The U.S. Open always is. You just have to take it easy.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA sites.