Ernie Els has special feelings for Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters. But as his chances of winning his first green jacket were derailed as early as Thursday – when he made double bogey on the 18th hole – the tall South African may have thought of a Roberta Flack song: “Killing Me Softly.” Coming into this week, Els was on top of his game. He won the WGC-CA Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first victories since the 2008 Honda Classic, to guarantee his first multiple-win season since 2004.
In nine of his 16 appearances at the Masters, Els has been in the top 10 after three rounds. But the three-time major winner never has found that magic on Sunday.
His best chances came in 2000 and 2004, losing to Vijay Singh in ’00 and then a leaping Phil Mickelson in ’04. He acknowledges he has not been the same since.
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“This place just does it to me,” Els said after a 3-over 75 Saturday. “I prepared and prepared, and I think about it. It’s killing me.”
At 40, Els must know chances of winning a green jacket are diminishing. Only five players have won the Masters in their 40s – Jimmy Demaret (1950), Ben Hogan (1953), Gary Player (1978), Jack Nicklaus (1986) and Mark O’Meara (1998) – but none since the course was drastically lengthened in 2002.
Els appeared to have it right this year. He was on a hot streak. Even through the first 17 holes Thursday, Els was in perfect position at 3-under, but then there was No. 18, Holly, which is far fiercer than its name.
“I get over things like that, but even yesterday I was still thinking about it,” Els said of the double bogey he suffered at the 18th. “I knew I needed to shoot four rounds in the 60s. And then double-bogeying 18 kind of killed me a little bit.”
Even though the 71 was Els’ second-best start at Augusta, he never could shake that closing mistake. So this year will mark more Masters heartache for the Big Easy. He thought he was ready, coming in early to Augusta to prepare, but he said he will rethink his strategy going forward. “I think next year I’m just going to come in Wednesday, or Tuesday night, and play and leave the family at home,” he said. “Seventeen years of playing practice rounds … I mean, it’s crazy. If it’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen. What can you do? But I’m just beating my head against a wall every time. I had a good attitude, and the game was there, everything is there.
“We don’t gel with the place.”
Since his near-miss in 2004, Els has played in five Masters and not finished better than a tied for 27th. He enters Sunday’s final round tied for 31st.
“I just got to ease off, just take the foot off the pedal … and stop worrying and thinking about the perfect shot,” Els said. “Because you go down the list, (Tom) Weiskopf, (Greg) Norman, (Johnny) Miller, I don’t know, many others, and (not winning the Masters) will be a huge void in my career. But if it’s not going to be, it’s not going to be.
“I mean, I can’t worry about this (stuff) anymore. I mean, I’m serious. I’m killing myself. I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s not good.”
Someone will put on the green jacket Sunday, but it won’t be Els. This week marks the first time since 2006 that he has made it to the weekend at Augusta. Come next week, Els will take some much needed rest.
Should he have skipped the Houston Open last week on the heels of winning at Bay Hill? Could he have avoided double bogey Thursday at the 18th hole to salvage his round? No doubt these thoughts will run through his mind, but Els has his sights set on the future.
“I’m going to play Sunday, try and break par, not break a club if I can,” Els said. “And then I’m going to have a great week off and look forward to playing (The Players). I want to have a good year. I’ve had a great start.
“I can win four, five, six tournaments this year, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”