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For Els, a Masters turn is due

The world's No.3-ranked golfer wants to get past his 2004 Augusta heartbreak.

By BOB HARIG
Published April 5, 2005


AUGUSTA, Ga. - There's no getting over it, really. Time dulls the pain, but the hurt never completely dissipates. Even a year later, Ernie Els gets quiet talking about what happened here, while hoping for a happier ending this time around.

While the golf world celebrated a popular Masters victory by Phil Mickelson in 2004, the reverberations still ring in Els' ears. Those cheers for Mickelson when he holed the winning birdie putt on the 18th green were a loud and cruel way of saying a green jacket would not be draped over Els' shoulders.

"For some reason, I got quite emotional," Els recalled. "I never watched anything going on, but I got a feeling he was going to make birdie. So I kind of cursed myself. That was really hard to take.

"I think I'm the same as anybody. I can't speak for the other guys, but that is something I've been chasing since I was 10 years old, to be honest with you. All the practice I've done, in the dark, chipping with my brother, hitting putts ... it's all preparing me to win (this) tournament."

Els ponders if it was his most painful defeat. "Yeah, I guess so," he said. "I've never played like that before on the final day."

He did everything but win.

Els, 35, the third-ranked player in the world who has won two U.S. Opens and a British Open, made two eagles during the final round. He made several crucial par putts. He shot 5-under-par 67, which around Augusta National on the final day should be good enough to get it done.

Instead, he was left with a fifth consecutive top-six finish - not that it was any consolation. Of the Big Four who will tee it up at the Masters this week - with Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Mickelson - Els is the only one without a Masters title.

"It's just my love for the place and watching the tournament through the years and the champions who go through," said Els, who practiced at Augusta National on Monday. "(Ben) Crenshaw in '84, (Seve) Ballesteros in 1980, and Gary (Player) in '78 and so forth, seeing (Nick) Faldo win a couple of times. You get the feel and the sense of how it must be to win it."

Els' compounded his frustration the rest of the year. Although he won three times on the PGA Tour and five times overall, capturing consecutive European PGA Tour money title and finishing second to Singh on the PGA Tour money list, the year left Els empty.

He fell a shot short to Mickelson in the Masters, melted down in the final round of the U.S. Open (shooting 80 while fellow South African and playing partner Retief Goosen won the title), lost in a four-hole playoff to Todd Hamilton at the British Open and missed a playoff by a stroke at the PGA Championship.

"Ernie came as close as close gets to winning three majors in one year," said Woods, who won three in 2000.

Els compared his close calls with the 1986 season of Greg Norman, who led all four majors through 54 holes but emerged with only the British Open championship. At least he got that. Els walked away with none of the hardware he so dearly coveted.

Good thing he already had those three major-championship trophies to his credit.

"The near-misses hurt," Els said. "And when you get a couple in a row, it gets very frustrating. But they also get you going again."

The Big Easy - who has a home in Orlando but is based in London - has left himself open to criticism because of the schedule he keeps. Nobody travels the globe quite like Els. Last year, he played in Hawaii, Thailand, Australia, Dubai and Florida before heading to the Masters.

Later, he played the Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas before heading to Europe for two events. Then it was back to the United States without taking a week off. He won the Memorial, played the Buick Classic then made the U.S. Open his sixth straight tournament.

No wonder he was burned out by the weekend.

"He spent something like 480 hours in the air last year," said Ricci Roberts, Els' caddie. "That's 20 days in the air. Never mind all the stuff you've got to deal with on the ground."

This year, after playing the first three events on the PGA Tour, Els headed to Australia again, but took most of February off. He did play four consecutive weeks, however, winning tournaments in Dubai and Qatar before returning for the Bay Hill Invitational and the Players Championship. He was never a factor at either.

"His pre-major run-ups have been just awful," fellow South African Nick Price said. "For me ... I couldn't do it. I would suggest that he needs to get more focused on those major championships."

Els has traveled the world his entire career. He maintains that is who he is. Although he threatens to cut back, Els does not believe it has been a hindrance, save for maybe the six-week run through last year's U.S. Open.

"When you have your own plane, as big as his plane is, and you can fly forever, it makes life a hell of a lot easier," said friend and Champions Tour player Mark McNulty. "I don't think it hurts him.

"But if he wants to win more majors, I think he's going to have to really knuckle down the months before and not do too much traveling. It's going to be interesting to see how he does this year. He came so close last year to winning nearly all of them, and didn't win any. I really feel this will be his make-or-break year. He obviously desperately wants to win the Masters. That's what he is gearing up for."

None of that was apparent Monday. Els looked relaxed and confident, seemingly enjoying a casual day on the golf course.

"I'm telling you now, I'm a different guy from what I was last August," Els said. "Last August, all the wind was out of me. I was gone. I'm very different now."

His 12th Masters awaits.