BETHESDA, Md. – Coming back to Congressional made Ernie Els feel like he was capable of winning another U.S. Open.
The hard part is getting over the last U.S. Open.
Els remains haunted by last summer at Pebble Beach, when he briefly had a share of the lead in the final round and his swing lived up to his nickname as the "Big Easy." Then came a three-hole stretch along the Pacific that he played in 4 over, and he wound up losing an excellent chance to add another major.
Even the 41-year-old South African concedes he hasn't been the same since then. Sure, he won the South African Open at the end of the year. But in his 13 tournaments this year, he has not finished better than 15th.
"We flew from Pebble to Munich the next week, and I was just as flat as I've ever been in my life," Els said. "I don't know exactly how the brain works, but that really was quite a big disappointment. I really felt that I did play the golf that I wanted to play, that I envisioned to play, and I didn't quite get the result that I wanted. You've got to give credit to Graeme McDowell the way he played. But from my point of view, I felt like I let one slip away."
And now comes a return to Congressional, where in 1997 he won his second U.S. Open. Els spent a few days on the course last week, and the good vibes returned.
The 5-iron he hit into the 17th hole — now the 18th for this U.S. Open — put him in the lead. The 4-foot par putt he made on the 18th hole gave him a one-shot victory over Colin Montgomerie.
And if there's one thing to give him some hope this week, he wasn't playing all that great in 1997, either.
He recalls missing the cut in two tournaments before the U.S. Open that year, including the old Kemper Open nearby. He came to Congressional to work on his game that weekend, shot 67 in the second round to get in the mix and was on his way.
"Winning that tournament gave me all the belief in the world," Els said.
He went on to win the Buick Classic the following week to become No. 1 for the first time.
Els won his first U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994 in a playoff that went 20 holes. His other major was a four-man playoff at Muirfield to win the 2002 British Open. He knows what it takes to win the biggest events, and Els said it starts with belief.
"You've got to have that picture in your mind, a clear picture of you lifting the trophy, and I think it's a long, long journey, a long road to get to that Sunday afternoon presentation," Els said. "So there's a lot of ups and downs that you have to face. But at the end of the day, you've just got to keep believing that it's your week.
"It's a funny game," he said. "When you start getting good breaks the belief gets stronger. It's really having that little dream in front of you and just keep playing. It's a big struggle out there. At times you feel like you want to go home. But it's the U.S. Open and it's a special week."
The last player in his 40s to win the U.S. Open was Payne Stewart, who was 42 at Pinehurst No. 2. Els is still fit, still capable, but he knows time is no longer on his side.
"It's almost too much," he said of his urgency to win another major. "I've almost got to dial it down a bit because my form so far this year has been atrocious. I want to change it as soon as possible. My patience level ... they say when you get older, it gets better, but I don't know. I think I'm a little different.
"I need to basically find a way of letting it happen, waiting for that week for it to happen," he said. "Maybe this week."
It helps being at Congressional, which made him an honorary member. Even though the closing holes are radically changed, the rest of the course looks similar to him.
Does he have that belief?
"I want to say yes," Els said. "I had a good week off last week, played out here, got myself familiar with the course again, got great vibes. So I'm looking forward to a good week. I'd really love to have a really good week, and see where it goes."