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Els prepares for US Open at Merion Golf Cup hoping for major win in 2nd straight year

Give it up, Ernie.

No, not the belly putter. At least, not yet.

Ernie Els has a claret jug he must return with his reign as British Open champion coming to an end.

"It was very great to have it in my possession again," a smiling Els said.

Perhaps another U.S. Open Trophy would serve as an adequate replacement.

Els is on the hunt for a third U.S. Open championship and the Big Easy wants to find it at Merion Golf Club this weekend. Els is one of the few dozen or so in the 156-player field to play some rounds at Merion. He played corporate outings in 2004 and 2005 and recalled the tough holes, blind tee shots — and the rain.

Lots of rain.

Not much changed when Els returned this week. Rain has absolutely soaked the course and flooded bunkers over the last three days. Els scrapped a practice session on Saturday and Monday's was cut short because of the downpour that greatly dampened and softened the 6,996-yard course, the shortest Open in more than a decade.

"I think it's not going to bare its teeth the way it should," Els said. "I know guys were hoping for a firm test."

With softer conditions, Els may as well keep the driver in the bag.

Golfers should be able to hit the fairway with a 3-wood or even an iron on some of the par-4s.

Once they reach the green, it could be time for Els to anchor up the belly putter.

The 43-year-old Els only has about three more years of majors left where he can still use the belly putter in its current form. The proposed rule change would prohibit golfers at all levels from anchoring a club against their bodies while making a stroke. Els, who won the British with a longer putter, has been outspoken with his unhappiness over the ban.

"Unfortunately, for guys that have been using it for a very long time, I think it's very unfair," he said. "For the future of the game, looking down the road 50 to a hundred years, they probably needed to do this step at some point, I guess. Probably should have done it 30, 40 years ago, but we're at this point now and guys are winning a lot of big tournaments, kids are starting to use it, and so that's what it is."

He understood change is ahead, whether he liked it or not — or how much if affected his game.

"I've been working with the shorter putter again," he said. "It took a little focus away from what I want to do. And my ball striking for some reason this year hasn't been as sharp. So I've put a bit more work in on that front the last week. When all aspects start clicking, then you can start thinking about winning. And I feel that time is coming right now."

Els had been in a lengthy majors drought when he took advantage of Adam Scott's collapse to win his second British Open last year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. His fourth major championship came at a stage in his career when it appeared that his best golf was behind him. He became only the sixth player to win the U.S. Open and British Open twice.

Els, elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, is up for a third in his 21st Open. It'd be a long time coming — his other two were won in 1994 and 1997. He finished ninth last year at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

"I see a very close race with a lot of players in contention this year, unlike other U.S. Opens," he said. "It's going to be bunched. It's going to be under par, you'll be seeing quite a few numbers in the red."

He'll need caddie Dan Quinn to help him get there. Quinn, who's worked part time on Els' bag since 2010, played 14 seasons in the NHL.

"We haven't quite found our rhythm this year yet," Els said. "But we've had some really good finishes."

Els, a native of Johannesburg, has kept close tabs on the worsening health of Nelson Mandela. The anti-apartheid hero and South Africa's first black president was in serious but stable condition in a Pretoria hospital for the third day Monday with a recurring lung infection.

Els said he had a great relationship with Mandela, though he hadn't seen the former leader in several years.

"When I won a lot of tournaments in the '90s and early part of the 2000s, we spoke a lot on the telephone," Els said. "He always felt proud of what the sporting athletes out of South Africa did for the country. He always felt very proud of that. Through that instance we had a really nice relationship.

"We're just hoping for the best."