ERIN, Wis. -- Making its U.S. Open debut, no one knew what to expect from Erin Hills on Thursday. Even in that cadence, this came out of nowhere. "This" being Ernie Els, he of 47 years of age, shooting one of the low rounds of the morning.
One of golf's most celebrated international performers, it's been 20 years since Els won the 1997 U.S. Open, his second victory at the tournament. He's making his 25th Open appearance; reading between the lines, it may be his last. The injuries are starting to mount, taking their toll on his play: coming into Wisconsin, the South African had played in 15 PGA Tour events, his best finish a T-35.
"It would be nice to keep going, but if not, it's also fine," said Els. "I've had a good time."
Moreover, life calls, with his foundation requiring his efforts. (Earlier this week, Els was nominated for the Sports Humanitarian of the Year award for his work towards autism.) As such, he was ostensibly viewed as a ceremonial player rather than competitor this week.
So much for that.
Els caused a host of second scoreboard glances Thursday morning, touring the front nine in 32 strokes. Granted, seemingly half the field reached red numbers, but as he headed to the back, Els sat just a stroke behind the lead of Rickie Fowler. For a brief moment, he looked like the Els of yesteryear. Yes, the athletic build had been replaced with a bit of a gut, his steps looking like one who was nearing his fifth decade on this earth. But that seemingly effortless, timeless swing remained. If you squinted, you would have swore you were watching a ghost.
"You know, I felt that some of my game is coming back," Els said. "My putting's back and short game's pretty good."
Better yet, his revival sent a jolt through the galleries. The gusto heaped on the four-time major was palpable; you would have thought he was wearing a Badgers shirt and Packers cheesehead.
Which he needed. After flying high through 12 holes, the final six were like trying to land a plane with a broken wheel. His birdie putt on the 13th left a lot of meat on the bone. His tee shot sailed into the fescue on the 15th; the second, a green side bunker. At the par-3 16th, his approach went so far right it could be a panelist on InfoWars. But on each occasion, Els drained his par putts, the final two of the "How the hell did he do that?" variety. The crowds ate it up; judging by his ear-to-ear grins, so did Els.
"Seems like my back nine, I had to do a lot of grinding right through there. When you make those par putts, they almost feel as good as a birdie putt," Els said. "You know, you've been around quite a few of these, and you've got to keep grinding along and just keep trying to put a score on the boards."
Alas, he couldn't hold it quite together, a poor chip-n-run on the 17th leading to a bogey, while a flubbed second shot on the 18th forced Els to lay up on his third shot, finishing with a six.
"Yeah, it's a shame the last two holes, but, you know, I could definitely play those holes better," Els said, laughing. "So that's a positive."
Forgive Els for the frivolity. It's the mindset needed at the U.S. Open, the ability to forget what just happened and move forward. Even with others going low, Els put himself in an enviable position.
"You take a two-under par in the first round in the U.S. Open, you're right there," Els said. "I know Rickie played a great round, seven under, but through experience you know that the field's coming, the worst part."
The obstacles ahead are many. He's had just one top-20 finish in his last 15 majors, and the U.S. Open is not exactly friends to those of Els' age. But that he's even here is a triumph, fighting the good fight against Father Time.
"I like to compete," Els simply put. "It hasn't been really good the last year or so, but I still want to be out there with the guys and play."
It was an unexpected performance on Day 1. And a welcomed one at that.