AUGUSTA, Ga. – Maybe this love story’s best chapter isn’t written yet after all.
Maybe the story of Ernie Els at the Masters won’t end as a tale of unrequited love.
Els loves August National, and nobody would appreciate what winning the Masters means more after all the heartache he has endured coming up short here. If he builds on Thursday’s strong start, if the 45-year-old Els leaves in a green jacket, it promises be a popular and emotional triumph.
“That’s the plan,” Els said. “We’ll see what happens.”
With a 5-under-par 67, Els finished the first round tied for second, three shots behind Jordan Spieth.
“I just felt comfortable,” he said. “I felt at ease for some reason.”
Els has won 19 PGA Tour titles, but he’s looking for his first in three years, since winning the British Open, the last of his four major championship titles.
Els made such formidable runs at winning the Masters between 2000 and 2004. He appeared to have one arm in the green jacket more than once. Twice, he was runner-up while never finishing worse than T-6 in that span.
The ’04 disappointment was particularly hard on Els. With a brilliant charge, playing the final 12 holes in 6 under, Els was waiting in the wings hoping to at least get in a playoff when Phil Mickelson birdied the last hole to beat him.
“When you heard the roar, it was like somebody reached into your chest and pulled your heart out,” Ricci Roberts, Els’ caddie that year, told Golf Channel back in 2013.
Els wasn’t the same returning to Augusta National after that loss.
“ I was trying to wipe it under the carpet that I wanted this one so badly for so many years,” Els said. “Definitely, there was something going on. You get fed up with yourself, never with Augusta, but yourself, with the mistakes that you make. I felt that I left shots out there in that span, that five‑, six‑year span. So a little frustration set in there, yeah.”
Els finished 47th in the ’05 Masters. He missed consecutive cuts in ’07, ’08 and ’09. After rebuilding his game and coming in as a favorite off victories at Doral and Bay Hill in 2010, Els left the Masters exasperated after finishing a distant T-18.
“It’s killing me,” Els said after that disappointment. “What can you do? I’m just beating my head against the wall every time.”
After failing to qualify for the Masters in 2012, missing it for the first time in almost two decades, Els returned the next year with a different approach. He came back to smell the azaleas. He came back trying to embrace the moments, the experiences.
Els used to pass on playing the Par 3 Contest, but the last two years, he has brought his family and played. His wife, Liezl, his daughter, Samantha, and his son, Ben, are all here.
“There's definitely a different kind of mind‑set in the whole family coming up here,” Els said. “It's more of an enjoyment. We kind of are running out of time a little bit here, so we are really trying to enjoy what we've got left out here. It's been 21 years coming to Augusta. It's been unbelievable, but nothing lasts forever. Samantha had a great time at the Par 3, and I just have a different appreciation, I think, for the place.”