Eighteen times, Ernie Els
has driven down Magnolia Lane for a Masters Tournament, but perhaps never with more personal satisfaction than he will this year.
After barely failing to qualify to play Augusta last year for the first time since 1993 and not getting a special international exemption that many people believed Els deserved, the Hall of Famer returns triumphant as the reigning British Open champion.
It was one of the many perks Els relished after earning his second Claret Jug in spectacular comeback fashion at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“To be honest, that evening after I won, that was one of the first things we talked about,” Els said. “For the next five years I’m in all of the majors, and that includes, obviously, Augusta.”
The Augusta chance even prompted Els to call one of his dear friends – a prominent member at Augusta National – from his after party in England just to rub it in a little.
“I said, ‘I’ll see you at Augusta for the next five years,’ ” Els said with a smile. “It was all said in jest, but he knew what I was saying.”
Els’ absence left a noticeable void in the 2012 field. Reigning champion Charl Schwartzel dearly missed his idol’s presence.
“Ernie has always been my hero, and to last year not see him there didn’t seem right,” Schwartzel said. “To have him back is great. He’ll always be a legend.”
Els is actually content with what some perceived as a snub from Augusta and believes it helped him three months later regain a place on that major pedestal after 10 years of various heartaches.
“Maybe last year was a good thing, because going in there, my game was coming around, I was playing good golf,” he said. “But when I didn’t get in (the Masters), I was actually glad I didn’t – especially late.”
In many ways, his victory over Adam Scott at Lytham was the most satisfying major victory of Els’ career. It had been 10 years since his last major title at Muirfield in 2002, and his game seemed on an inexorable slide.
He struggled with his putting, including several excruciating moments that cost him tournaments. He could have secured a Masters invitation at the Tampa event if not for a couple of short yips down the stretch.
“Last year’s is going to be right up there,” Els said. “Just because ’11 was such a really tough year. I’ve had tough years before but I was like, ‘Man!’ Then to come back and have a good start to the year and feel my confidence coming. That’s all you can ask for. Winning a major like that and making those putts on the last nine and making that putt on 18 has got to be one of the best.”
Part of his satisfaction was from performing in front of his children. His daughter, Samantha, was only 3, and his wife, Liezl, was pregnant with their son, Ben, when Els last won a major in 2002. Ben, who was diagnosed with autism in 2009, was glued to the television from their home in London as Els rallied to win on the second nine.
“To do that with Ben watching and knowing what was going on, that was special,” Els said. “Both my kids were just so delighted. It was really cool to let them know their dad’s not a bad golfer.”
At age 43 with four major titles and a bust already enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame, Els isn’t content to simply drift into the sunset. As immensely satisfying as his triumph at Royal Lytham was, it also proved to him that his game still rates among the best.
“I know I’m getting older and so on, but I’m going to get a venue which I like and my game might be right on again and – who knows? – I might make another run at maybe a couple.” he said of the majors. “We’ve got a great run this year with Muirfield and Merion and Oak Hill, so it’s a big year to have your game together.”
To that end, Els will continue limiting his alcohol consumption, which he credited for helping him win the Open. A notorious partier going back to his teenage days, Els has curbed the excesses that characterized his lifestyle away from the golf course.
“You should ask my wife,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think I’m totally grown up yet, but I’m growing up. I’m not completely off it. That night after the Open and when I went to South Africa with all my friends in December, we had a lot of stuff out of that (claret) jug. But for the most part I’m really quite a changed guy. Take it a little bit easier.”
Els said the epiphany he had last summer has had a great effect on his renewed success.
“I kind of woke up one day and said, ‘If I never have another party, I’m still way ahead of the game,’ ” he said. “Just do your thing and get on with it. I think the whole game is a little different. Those Monday mornings aren’t as bad, and now you can actually recover and get your body in better shape and be ready to go at a better rate.
“I’m definitely a little different nowadays.”
With two runner-up finishes among his many years competing at Augusta, Els knows what he is capable of at the Masters. The fact that some people had written him off only fuels his desire to return.
“Hey, they think I’m done,” he said. “You know, we are not quite done yet. We will see where it goes.”
For at least the next five years, Els will go wherever the majors go content that there is nothing left for him to prove.
“You get older and start looking at the game and what it’s given you and some things you haven’t taken advantage of,” he said. “But it’s still such a special thing, win or lose, to go back to places like that.”