SOUTHAMPTON, NY – JUNE 15: Ernie Els of South Africa plays his tee shot on the 17th hole during the second round of the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 15, 2018, in Southampton, New York. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
By Christopher Powers
Following a T-55 finish in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, Ernie Els knew that he may have just competed for the final time in the event. Despite winning two U.S. Opens, one in 1994 at Oakmont and another in 1997 at Congressional, the Big Easy was still out of luck, because the USGA does not give out lifetime exemptions to those who pass golf’s toughest test. Winners get exemptions into the next 10 Opens, though Els played in the next 20 thanks to qualifying in a number of different categories during that span.
But he finally ran out of exemptions in 2017, the final year of his five-year exemption he earned via his 2012 Open Championship win at Royal Lytham & St Annes. Erin Hills was his 24th U.S. Open appearance, cutting him one short of 25, though he was able to reach that milestone when the USGA awarded him with a special exemption last year at Shinnecock Hills. Els missed the cut, shooting rounds of 78 and 79.
Fortunately for Els, he’ll get another crack this year, as the USGA announced on Thursday that they’d award Els with another special exemption for the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach this June. It will mark Els’ 27th consecutive appearance in the event, which has included his two victories, eight top 10s and five finishes inside the top five, the most recent coming in 2013 at Merion.
One of those top five finishes also came the last time the U.S. Open was held at Pebble Beach in 2010 when Els finished in solo third. Entering the final round he trailed Dustin Johnson by six shots, and when Johnson began to falter on Sunday Els was suddenly back in the mix. Through 13 holes on Sunday, he was at even par for the week, which would have been good enough to get into a playoff with eventual winner Graeme McDowell, but bogeys at the 14th and 17th holes ended his chances at a third U.S. Open triumph.
Els, who will captain the International team at this year’s Presidents Cup, has shown flashes of his former self in 2019. He’s made eight of 10 cuts on the PGA Tour for the season, with a high finish of T-20 coming at the Honda Classic. Over on the European Tour, Els has a pair of top 15 finishes in just three starts in 2019, including a T-7 at the Maybank Championship.