Els Seeks His Masterful Moment

By Mercer BaggsApril 6, 2005, 4:00 pm
Ernie Els almost rolls his eyes at the talk of a golfing Big Four.
 
You guys (the media) are talking about the Big Four more than I think anybody, Els said Tuesday in his press conference at The Masters.
 
Ernie Els
Ernie Els has six top-10 finishes in 11 career Masters starts.
In other words, Els and Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson dont sit around in the locker room discussing their greatness. They dont meet in private and share a secret handshake. They dont dine and have drinks together, and dont compare and contrast one another.
 
There was, however, a dinner Tuesday night in Augusta, Ga. Tiger was there, and so was Vijay, and so was Phil. But there was no Ernie. Ernie wasnt there, because Ernie wasn't invited.
 
This dinner is for Masters champions only. And Els is the only member of this media manufactured Big Four who doesnt have the requisite green jacket for the sit-down.
 
Over the last five years, Woods, Singh and Mickelson have combined to win four Masters titles. Els has finished inside the top 10 on each and every occasion ' but never has he finished first.
 
He came the closest to doing so a year ago. Els shot 67 in the final round and then waited to see ' or rather hear ' if Mickelson would tie him or beat him.
 
I was sitting on the putting green, trying to hit some putts and eating an apple and stuff like that, and hoping for a playoff, Els said. I thought my chances were pretty good for a playoff.
 
Els was thinking playoff for two reasons. For one, he just couldnt imagine having played so wonderfully and not being rewarded. For another, he knew his opponent. Mickelson was the only man who could beat him ' and, in these situations, Mickelson always seemed to beat himself.
 
But this time, the 18-footer ' the one that easily could have slingshot out of the left lip for a playoff producing par ' curled softly into the hole for a birdie and a one-shot victory in Mickelsons favor.
 
I couldnt see that it was Phil (who made the putt), Els said. But after hearing the peoples applause and stuff, I knew it was Phil.
 
And just like that, Mickelson major monkey vanished in a deafening roar. And Els Masters misfortune piled on.
 
Three-hundred and 61 days later, Els showed no outward signs of excessive baggage. Even though he was just getting over a nasty cold, he was upbeat in tone and answer. He almost seemed to share in the popular opinion that he will be the one deciding next year's menu at the Champions Dinner.
 
I just see the golf course in a new light this year, he said. Im excited about this year.
 
When asked to expand on this new light, Els just smiled and replied: No, sorry.
 
Els has competed in 50 major championships in his career and has finished inside the top 10 on 24 occasions. Let that one soak in: he finishes in the top 10 nearly every other time he makes a start. Thats a better percentage than Woods (45 percent), Singh (31) and Mickelson (42).
 
Els appears to always play a leading role in the outcome of major championships. Hes is a three-time winner and a six-time runner-up. He has 17 top-5 finishes and hasnt missed the cut in one since the 1999 PGA Championship.
 
Last year alone, he twice finished second (losing in a playoff to Todd Hamilton at the British Open), missed out on a playoff in the PGA Championship by a stroke, and played in the final twosome on Sunday at the U.S. Open.
 
Thats a whole lot of consistency and a whole lot of heartbreak. And considering that this is the title he most wants, nowhere has his heart been more wrenched than at Augusta National.
 
I dont want to approach a tournament in that fashion where I feel that the tournament or the place or golf course or anything owes me anything, Els said.
 
All I can do is try and prepare myself to the best of my ability to try and have another go at it, and thats exactly what Im in the process of doing.
 
Els has two victories on the season, coming in back-to-back weeks in early March on the European Tour. He first captured the Dubai Desert Classic and then the Qatar Masters.
 
He has yet to win in the States, but he does have three top-10s in just five starts.
 
Im glad that Ive hit some form, although it wasnt on the U.S. circuit, Els said. But Ive had a couple of wins under my belt now and Ive felt the pressure.
 
So its important to have played one or two tournaments very, very well up to this point because theres a different feel of pressure out here at Augusta.
 
No one ' not even Els ' has been tortured by this tournament as much as Greg Norman. And yet there is no tournament that Norman cherishes more.
 
Els feels much the same. He said that last years experience ' while on the cusp of devestation ' was the most special Sunday afternoon stroll that Ive ever had. Hes proud of the fact that he massaged a 67 out of terrible tension ' even if it was one shot too many.
 
And maybe this is the year that he is finally both good and lucky.
 
I think right from the get-go, I think my expectations always have been to win this tournament, said Els, who tied for eighth in his Masters debut in 1994. So if your expectations are that high, anything less than that is a bit of a disappointment.
 
If I never win this tournament, Ive still played some good golf here and Ive had some good times here. But obviously, winning is everything right now.
 
All I can do is prepare, stay focused, try to hit the shots that I need to, and at the end of the day have a bit of luck going my way. You need a bit of luck in this game, too.
 
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