Big guns aim to end hard times at US Open

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Ernie Els has endured a frustrating 2011 campaign but, just as he did 14 years ago, is looking to regain form on the welcome turf of Congressional Country Club at this week’s US Open. In 1997, South African Els arrived at Congressional after missing the cut in his previous tournament before ending that week on an unexpected high with a second US Open title to his name.
This season, he has struggled on the U.S. PGA Tour without a single top-10 in 11 starts and once again he is hoping to reignite his game on the tree-lined layout on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. “It’s a long time ago,” Els told reporters on Tuesday as he reflected on his one-stroke victory over Britain’s Colin Montgomerie at Congressional in 1997.
“I came here last week and played a couple of rounds in the heat. It was about 102 (degrees) but just playing the course … brings back great memories. “I got myself familiar with the course again and got obviously great vibes. I’ve got a nice draw so I’m looking forward to a good week.” Els, a three-times major winner who is popularly known as the ‘Big Easy’ because of his smooth swing and generally laidback demeanour, has vivid memories of how his U.S. Open week steadily improved in 1997.
Britain’s Lee Westwood enters the US Open optimistic he has what it takes to finally snag an elusive first major golf crown. “My confidence is pretty high. I’m looking forward to this week,” Westwood said Monday. “I’m driving it pretty long and straight. My iron shots are fairly crisp, which is good coming into a US Open. My preparation has gone well.”
The World No. 2 starts Thursday morning off the 10th tee alongside fellow Englishman Luke Donald, the reigning World No. 1, and Germany’s third-ranked Martin Kaymer in the feature group at Congressional Country Club. “Amazing freak of nature how that came out in the draw, wasn’t it?” Westwood joked. “I like it. I think it’s a good idea. I get on well with Luke and Martin as well, so it will be a nice way to start off the tournament.”
Westwood was last year’s Masters and British Open runner-up, shared third in the 2009 PGA Championship and British Open and was third in the 2008 US Open, one stroke out of an 18-hole playoff at Torrey Pines. “It’s a challenge that I’ve got to try and overcome and just do a little bit better at the right times,” Westwood said. “There’s no secret ingredient or recipe to it. I keep getting myself in position and it’s just a case of finishing it off.”
After so many near misses in quest of his first major, Westwood could be forgiven for some gloom over missed opportunities. But the 38-year-old from Worksop has proven resilient. “If you’re a good player, you’re going to have disappointments because you’re going to be in contention a lot,” he said. “You’re going to have lots of chances to win major championships, so that’s all part and parcel of it.
“If you have a successful year, we maybe win three times a year. So you get used to not winning and being disappointed. You learn to try and take positives out of anything, even when you maybe finish second and you thought you should have won one of these. “You try and look at it on the bright side and I think I’ve probably managed to do that over the last few years. I seem to be responding well and coming out of it positively, even though obviously I would love to win one.”
Westwood has faith that if he puts himself in the hunt on Sunday often enough, the breaks will one day come his way. “It’s a fine balancing act and a fine line between when you do get really close to becoming frustrated but still seeing the positives in the fact that you are getting close,” Westwood said. “I feel like my game is good enough and if I just do a few things differently at the right times, then it’ll be the difference between a second and a win. It’s a tricky balancing act, going in with expectations but playing with a freedom as well.”
Westwood played his first US Open at Congressional in 1997, when he shared 19th. “Really doesn’t seem like five minutes, those 14 years,” Westwood said. “It’s a pretty similar course. They have done a good job of modifying it and lengthening it and changing the greens in certain areas. “It’s very fair. There’s no tricks to this golf course. You could almost turn up Thursday and just play it because it’s such a good, honest test.”
However, Westwood calls the US Open the toughest test of the majors because of the lightning-fast greens and dense rough. “You have to be very patient and not give any shots away unnecessarily,” he said. “If you can make double (bogey) instead of making triple, that’s great. “It’s almost like one less birdie you need if you can make that three or four-footer when you need it.” On the eve of his 55th birthday, Fred Funk warned that despite an artificial knee and 15-year-old son Taylor as his caddie, this oldie might still be good enough to be a US Open threat.
Funk will be the oldest player in the field of 156 when the US Open begins Thursday at Congressional Country club, and seven years older than Julius Boros when he became the oldest major winner at the 1968 PGA Championship. “I expect to do OK,” Funk said Monday. “I still have high expectations. I’m not here just to walk two rounds or four rounds and just show up. I truly believe I can still be competitive when I’m playing well and feeling good.”
Funk, who had his right knee replaced in 2009, had been struggling but has rounded his game into shape, firing a 62 last week in his final round in an event on the 50-and-over Champions Tour, where he is a six-time winner. “If I can drive the ball the way I’ve been driving it, which has just been really straight, and keep it out of the rough, then I can set up holes even though I’ll be hitting a lot of ammo into the greens,” Funk said.