If the men in Green Jackets could give one player a Masters “mulligan”, there’s a fair chance it would be Ernie Els. The big South African has finished runner-up twice here and recorded six top-10s. Okay, his record in 23 appearances may be viewed as almost mediocre compared to Jordan Spieth finishing second, first then second again in his first three starts. With four majors to his name, though, Els has been the big absentee at that Champions’ Dinner at Augusta National.
Just being back here will now be an achievement for the 47-year-old. The five-year exemption he secured in 2012 when winning a second Open Championship has run out. Unless he can finish in the top four in a major or get back into the world’s top 50 – a tall order considering he’s currently sitting 410th – then his journey in this particular event is over.
If so, Els deserved a better final memory. He closed the 81st staging of this event with a 78. It followed an 83 on Saturday, leaving the “Big Easy” in last place among the 53 players to make the final two rounds on 20-over-par. It was a far cry from when he was pipped by Phil Mickelson in 2004, having also been a bridesmaid to Vijay Singh four years earlier. As he prepared for what could have been his last drive down Magnolia Lane to Washington Road, though, Els said he felt privileged rather than sad.
“How many professional golfers get the opportunity to play the Masters 23 times?” he mused. “And having a chance to win it a couple of times was special. This tournament is just not for me. I’ve won a lot of events around the world, but this one just eluded me and that’s fine.”
He went right back to the start when asked to pick out some of his highlights. “The very first time was very, very special in 1994,” he reflected. “I had a couple of really great groupings. I played with Ben Crenshaw, an absolute specialist here, that year. I played with Jose Maria [Olazabal] in the third round that year, he went on to win. So that was a great time. I definitely learned a lot from those guys.
“And then, obviously, the times I came close. I think 2004 was a really special Sunday for myself [closing with a 67 and only being denied a play-off when Mickelson holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the last]. Just being here is a special feeling. The guys in the locker room are still the same guys and the members I’ve met here through the years are the same people and they run an amazing event. It’s a place where you dream to get once or twice. And to say I’ve been part of it for so long was great.”
Can he do something special to get back one day? “I think there’s still obviously a chance,” he insisted. “I’m still trying to win a PGA Tour event to get to 20 and I’m 48 this year, so if I get back, great. Obviously, it’s not totally out of the picture, but if it is, it is.”
What could be his last Masters hurrah was in the company of Jeff Knox, the host club amateur fulfilling what has now become his traditional role as a marker in the first group of the day. Most of the chairs around the 18th green were empty when Els finished. Some of the patrons appreciated he might not be back here and rose to their feet as they applauded.
“I had a good day,” he declared. “It’s the second time that he’s been my marker around here, so it was just nice playing with him. There were quite a few people out on the front nine getting their seats and stuff. The patrons gave me a nice applause here and there. And it was just nice to play. I obviously didn’t play good again but it’s nice to go around again. And I don’t really feel that emotional, I think, just because of my play. If I played better, I think it would have been a different feeling. Playing four rounds was the positive. The negative is just that my play was atrocious and that’s the hard part to take.”
As Els was speaking, Rory McIlroy, pictured, was walking up the first fairway. Like Els, the Northern Irishman is finding this place tough to crack, so what advice does he have to offer to McIlroy. “He’s so young still,” observed Els of the 27-year-old. “He’s played quite a few and he’s had a couple of chances already. It doesn’t seem like it’s burned him too much in the way he speaks about some of his close calls. And, if he keeps a good attitude, I think he’s fine.
“He has the perfect game for here. And I’m sure he can win it. And, if he gets that first one, he can win a few. I know we said this many, many times, but I do believe in him, because he’s got an all‑around great game and he’s longer than I was at that age. And you need to be really long around here.”