AUGUSTA — Ernie Els has memories at every corner of Augusta National, typical of someone who is playing the Masters for the 23rd time.
Nothing haunts him as much as the sight of the practice green.
That’s where he was in 2004, hopeful of a playoff after closing with a 67, tied for the lead as Phil Mickelson made his way up the last hole to face an 18-foot birdie putt. Els couldn’t see the 18th green because of the crowd. All he could do was listen for the outcome.
The putt swirled in the cup. Mickelson leapt. The cheer shook the ground.
Els scooped up his golf balls and walked away.
“That was a blow,” Els said Monday in a quiet reflection. “I didn’t play quite good after that.”
The moment stands out even more this week as the 47-year-old South African returns for what could be his last Masters. Past champions can play for life, and most everyone would have put Els on that list when the Big Easy showed up for the first time in 1994.
He won the first of his two U.S. Opens that summer. Two British Open titles followed, the last one in 2012 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which earned him a five-year exemption to the Masters.
That exemption runs out this week.
“You can put a line on it and say most probably it will be the last one,” Els said. “We’ll see, unless we do something down the road. But you know, it’s been good. Whatever. If I come back again, great. If I don’t, it’s been good.”
Els is on a list of great players who never won a green jacket.
Greg Norman seemed to have chances just about every year for a decade. He sent a shot into the gallery in 1986 for bogey that allowed Jack Nicklaus to win a sixth Masters. A year later, Larry Mize chipped in from 140 feet on the 11th hole to win a sudden-death playoff. Norman famously blew a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo in 1996, and Jose Maria Olazabal beat him in a back-nine duel in 1999.
Tom Weiskopf was runner-up four times. David Duval had a chance to win four in a row starting in 1998, when Mark O’Meara beat him with a 20-foot birdie on the last hole. Duval last played the Masters seven years ago.
Much like Els, Duval wonders how his career at Augusta National would have gone if O’Meara had not birdied the last two holes. Would he have won more than once?
“I think so,” Duval said. “Because then you know about finishing. But it goes back to the first question. Who knows? Because you still have to do it.”
Els doesn’t quite have the hard-luck history at Augusta National as Norman, Duval or even Ken Venturi before them. His only other real chance to win the Masters was in 2000, when he missed every putt coming down the stretch and was runner-up to Vijay Singh.
The only year he didn’t qualify was in 2012, and there was an outcry for Augusta National to award him a special invitation, in part because of his stature in the game. Els had been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame two years earlier.
Els knows all about expectations, especially at Augusta. And when he still didn’t have a Masters trophy after 10 years, it began to wear on him. Nothing was worse than Tuesday night at the Masters, when past champions headed upstairs for dinner in their green jackets.
“When it didn’t happen, it became a bit of struggle,” he said.
Sure enough, Els never had another top 10 at the Masters after that close call in 2004.
“I’ve heard him talk about it. It frustrated him badly,” said Charl Schwartzel, who spent time in Els’ junior program in South Africa before winning the 2011 Masters. “If you don’t do it early enough, it becomes a thing. And once something becomes a thing in his game, you fight elements you don’t want to be fighting.”
Els doesn’t exactly come to Augusta National in top form.
He has missed the cut in nine of his last 10 starts worldwide, the exception a tie for 13th in the Qatar Masters two months ago. His most recent memory of the Masters is a six-putt from 2 feet to make a 9 on the first hole of the first round. A proud man, he stuck it out and played 1 over the rest of the way for an 80.
Els is still traveling and working, yet he is winding down.
There was a peace about him Monday as he ducked in from the rain under an eave of the Augusta National clubhouse.
His daughter, Samantha, just learned she has been accepted to Stanford next year. His Els for Autism foundation is thriving.
He wants this to be a good week at the Masters, because it might be his last one.
Minus a green jacket, he has few complaints in a game that has brought him 57 victories around the world, U.S. Open titles at Oakmont and Congressional, and claret jugs from Muirfield and Lytham.
“The other majors, things happen to you,” he said. “This one didn’t.”