Els looks back wistfully on Masters career as exemption ends

Ernie Els leaned back against his locker in the members’ locker room, sipping on apple juice and reflecting on the half of his life spent playing the Masters Tournament.

“I just never got that harmony – harmony from the golf course, my harmony with it,” he said. “I was always going against the grain a little bit.”

If this was the end, the four-time major winner from South Africa was at peace with that.

“How many professional golfers get the opportunity to play the Masters 23 times?” he said. “It’s a place where you dream to get to once or twice. And to do it for so long was great.”

Els has a tortured history with the Masters and Augusta National Golf Club, a place he fell in love with the first time he played in 1994 but never quite loved him back. He had his chances to win a green jacket but it was never his fate. He has plenty of crystal from eagles and aces and low rounds to remind him of his career here.

“I have all kinds of stuff, just not a jacket,” he said with a wistful laugh.

His Masters fate was most cruelly applied in 2004, when he made eagles at 8 and 13 to shoot 67 in the final round and waited for a potential playoff with Phil Mickelson. Mickelson, however, birdied 16 and 18 to shoot 31 on the back and leave Els gutted on the practice putting green.

It’s a bittersweet memory that Els now calls “special.”

“I played with K.J. (Choi), and he holed out on 11 and I made eagles at 8 and 13,” Els said. “And then Phil finished the way he did. That really stung me; it still stings. But when I look back now, to have been on that kind of run it’s kind of an historic moment with Phil winning his first and him becoming an Augusta specialist since then. We’ve had some good times. As I said, the blend just wasn’t drinkable. It’s fine, I’ve got no regrets.”

Els’ only second-guessing of that day was not slamming the door when he had a chance with makeable birdie chances on the last two holes that settled for par. At the time, Mickelson had never won a major and had a history of making costly gambles.

“I thought Phil was going to make a mistake; that was the thing that ditched me,” he said. “I just took the foot off the pedal a little bit because I had two birdie putts on 17 and 18 but I wasn’t aggressive enough. That’s the thing that burns me. If I kept going at it … it is what it is. There’s always a game within a game. You can blame the course but you also think the guy normally blows it at 18 and he makes birdie on me.”

Els said his favorite memory at the Masters came in 1998 when he was paired in the final round with 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus. The six-time Masters winner made a front-nine charge with birdies on 2, 3, 6 and 7 to awaken the echoes of 1986, shooting 68 and finishing tied for sixth.

“I was like No. 2 in the world and Tiger (Woods, No. 1) and Davis (Love III, No. 4) were playing in front of us and it was like we didn’t exist,” Els said. “When he made birdie on 7, my hair went up. I guess that was the noise we used to hear on television in ’86. It must have been just like that. It was crazy.

“We were walking up 8 and Davis and Tiger were walking down 9 and both of them were smiling at me, ‘Is the old man getting us?’ It was great. He shot 68 but it could have been 64. It was really special.”

Els was glad to play four days this week, but the weekend will not go down on his list of fond memories. He was just 1-over-par through 34 holes and sitting inside the top 12 before bogeys on the final two holes Friday hinted at what was to come on the weekend.

“Those last two holes of Friday I could just feel my energy drop,” Els said. “I don’t know if it’s age but I just got a little tired. I think that the bubble kind of burst and I never got it going again.”

He shot his career worst Masters score of 83 on Saturday and followed it up with a 78 on Sunday playing with noncompeting marker Jeff Knox in what could be his last competitive round at Augusta.

“It’s been a tough two days,” he said. “A score like that, it’s pretty embarrassing. You just want to kind of keep it quiet and move on. It’s tough to do that because there’s nowhere to hide out there. People were respectful.

“The front nine (Sunday) there were a lot more people and they gave me applause to the green and the tees. People were very nice.”

Els isn’t completely giving up on making a Masters return. He has his sights set on getting at least one more PGA Tour win to reach 20 and gain lifetime membership.

“I need to take stock and I need to get my mental game going,” he said.

“I had a great opportunity to finish top 11 after the first two rounds and obviously that didn’t happen. Who knows? I’ve got good feelings to still have one of two more in me. I could win a tournament to come back. But the 23 years I’ve played here I want to look at that and say that was special. All these guys in the locker room here and the members, they’re still the same guys from 94. It’s amazing.”

He planned to go home Sunday, put his feet up, grab his son and watch the finish of the Masters on television.

“I don’t really feel that emotional,” he said. “Maybe later, if I don’t come back again, I’ll probably think back to this moment speaking to you guys in front of the lockers. At the moment, I wish I had played better because it would have been a different feeling. But I played so bad that you almost want to get it out of your mind rather than holding on to it.”