8/10 • 3 - 6 PM
Ernie Els’ third round of the 42nd U.S. Senior Open was at a crossroads. He had just bogeyed No. 10, at a drivable 282 yards the easiest hole on Saucon Valley Country Club’s Old Course on Saturday, and his next two holes produced indifferent results.
“You’re always going to make mistakes in U.S. Opens, but to do that on the easiest hole of the day, you just know you’re giving shots away to the field,” said Els, 52, of South Africa, a two-time U.S. Open champion, in 1994 and 1997. “Guys in front of me hit 3-woods on the green, two-putted [for birdie]. My playing partner hit it on the green and I make 5. It feels almost like a double bogey. It’s very tough mentally to work that out of your system.”
However, Els was able to, as he put it, “get the ship back on track,” with two birdies down the stretch to complete a round of 4-under-par 67 and move up nine spots from a tie for 13th into solo fourth place heading into Sunday’s Round 4. The second birdie came oh-so-close to being an eagle 2, as his 9-iron approach into the 18th green grazed the hole before stopping a few inches away.
“I had 155, so perfect stock 9-iron in this weather,” said Els, who has nearly 75 victories around the world and five top 10s in his eight senior major starts. “It would have been really nice for the people watching if that ball went in. Nice to finish with that.”
Though he sits in fourth place, Els trails leader Padraig Harrington by seven strokes. If he were to make up that deficit on Sunday, it would be the second-largest comeback in U.S. Senior Open history, behind Allen Doyle’s nine-stroke rally with a round of 63 in 2005 at NCR Country Club in Dayton, Ohio. That victory was the first of back-to-back titles for Doyle.
“I’ve got to do what he’s doing,” said Els of Harrington, who shot 5-under 66 on Saturday, one of just two rounds better than Els’ (2021 champion Jim Furyk also shot 66). “He’s obviously making birdies, and he’s playing with freedom. I think Johnny Miller comes to mind. I’m going to have to shoot lights-out 63 or something and wait for him to make mistakes.”
Having played recently with Harrington, who is making his U.S. Senior Open debut at age 50, Els is impressed if not optimistic about his chances.
“I played with him in the practice rounds, and he’s striking it really well,” said Els, who is competing in his second Senior Open, having finished in a tie for 17th last year behind Furyk at Omaha (Neb.) Country Club. “He’s got a lot of length; he’s probably the longest off the tee on the Champions Tour. When he has it under control, like he has this week, you’ve got to watch out.”
As for Els, having scored 72-70-67 this week, he is certainly on the right track.
“I worked through some faults in my swing [on Friday],” he said. “Today was much better, especially off the tee. I should have had that going on Thursday, but sometimes that’s just the timing of things in your swing and in your game. Now I feel much more comfortable, like I can really take on the course the way you should. I wish there was a tournament next week.”
As for this first visit to Saucon Valley, it has been a very pleasant surprise for Els.
“The support has been brilliant; people up here have been amazing,” said Els. “I love the setup this week; old classic golf course with heavy rough but playing conditions as fair as you’re ever going to see. I just love the test. If you’re playing good, you can do what Padraig’s doing. Maybe not quite that good (laughter), but in that vicinity.”
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.