Ernie Els, of South Africa, hits out of the bunker on the third hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open golf tournament in Pinehurst, N.C., Wednesday, June 11, 2014. The tournament starts Thursday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

North Carolina - It may be 17 years since Ernie Els last won the US Open, but the Big Easy is optimistic about his chances at this year’s tournament, starting today at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in North Carolina.

Els tasted success in the event early in his career, winning in 1994 and 1997, and could well add a third title if he started well.

“This tournament has long been one of the highlights of the year for me,” said the four-time Major winner. “It’s a while since I won my two titles, but I’ve been in the mix a bunch of times since then.”

The 44-year-old normally played the week before a Major, but this time felt getting to the course early was more important. “Obviously other guys might prefer to play a tournament the week before a Major. I’ve done that myself plenty of times and, to be honest, you just have to go with what feels right for you at the time, whatever helps you get mentally ready for a Major.

“This year, I wanted to come in when there weren’t many people around and I could wear shorts and just be more casual.”

Though Els has had his battles with his putting over the last few years, his play from around the greens has always been a strength and could be vital in the difficult scoring conditions.

Getting up and down would always be tough, but Els was confident about his chances.

“The big challenge is the shots into and around Pinehurst’s famous greens, which are shaped like upturned saucers.

“If you miss greens, the ball often gets swept into deep greenside swales and it’s tough getting down in two from there.

“You have to use your imagination and play a real variety of shots, which is more of a British Open type quality rather than a typical US Open. But I like that. I like it when a golf course gives you some options.”

Making his 22nd appearance, Els was one of five South Africans teeing it up with countrymen Retief Goosen, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Garth Mulroy all playing.

When the course was last used for the US Open in 2005, Kiwi Michael Campbell came out on top, on even par for the week in famously difficult scoring conditions.

“I’d say this course is one of the toughest on the US Open rotation,” Els said.

“As with any Major championship, there will be pins that you realistically can’t go at, so you have to expect stretches of holes where it will be tough giving yourself really good birdie chances.

“You’ll hear players talking a lot about being patient. Trust me, it’s an essential virtue in the US Open and again that’s fine with me.”

Goosen, also a two-time US Open winner (2001, 2004) was playing in the final edition of his 10-year exemption in the event, since his last victory.

Goosen was in contention at the St Jude Classic on the PGA Tour last week, with a pair of opening 66s, but played the weekend in 75 and 72 to finish tied for 32nd.

Goosen would be hoping for a good week, as his world ranking had fallen to 214th since battling a back injury last year.

Adam Scott has been a perennial contender in Major championships over the past three years but, for reasons which he finds difficult to explain, he has mainly struggled at the US Open.

One of the best ball-strikers in the game and blessed with a swing envied by many of his peers, Scott has all the credentials to shine in the year’s second Major which traditionally puts a premium on playing percentage golf.

Yet, the 33-year-old has failed to make much of an impact at the US Open, missing the cut six times in 12 starts with a best finish of joint 15th at the Olympic Club outside San Francisco in 2012.

“Certainly I haven’t had the best record at the US Open, and it’s hard to put a finger on a lot of it,” Scott said yesterday.

“I’ve talked to you all about 10 years of playing pretty average, by my own expectations in Majors, and tried to improve that the last few years.

“I’ve done a good job, but maybe not quite as good at the US Open.

“However, I felt, at Olympic, I played well the last 60 holes or so, after a really bad start in the first round. And the confidence grew last year.”