Ernie Els plans to have a few extra friends with him this week in Augusta.
Sure, the usual collection of family and support staff will be present amidst the azaleas. But as he gets set to make his 23rd Masters appearance – and the last of the five-year exemption afforded to him for winning The Open in 2012 – Els has also rented out an extra house.
There he’ll host a cadre of old buddies and long-established acquaintances, those who haven’t tagged along in Augusta since his prime more than a decade ago.
“Basically the ‘oldies,’” Els said with a grin. “They’re all coming in, and we’re just going to have one last look around.”
When it comes to Els and Augusta National Golf Club, there was never supposed to be a “last look around.” Long off the tee with a deft touch around the greens, the “Big Easy” seemed destined to join the storied winners’ circle in short order. It was not a question of whether he’d ever enjoy the lifetime exemption of a past champion, but rather how many jackets would ultimately hang in his locker at the club.
When he made his Masters debut in 1994 at age 24, months before the first of his four major titles, Els shot a third-round 67 while paired with former champ Ben Crenshaw.
“He’s kind of an Augusta specialist, and he was excited for me,” Els recalled. “We chatted afterwards, and he said how many times I was going to win it, and how my putting touch was so perfect that day.”
Crenshaw donned his second green jacket the very next year. More than two decades later, Els is still waiting for his invite into the Champions Locker Room.
“As it happened, you know, it just never kind of blossomed,” he said.
There’s a cruel bit of symmetry, a yin and yang, to the history books at Augusta National. For every Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, players to whom the course almost seemed to whisper words of inspiration, there was a Tom Weiskopf or a Greg Norman, those whose remarkable talent brought them within inches of the finish line but never quite across it.
Els, of course, always appeared headed for the former group but has somehow ended up in the latter.
“I think it’s sad to see him not having a jacket,” said Louis Oosthuizen, who played junior golf as a member of the Ernie Els Foundation in South Africa. “I think as someone who’s won majors, you sort of really want the green jacket if you’ve won more than one.”
Following that stellar debut, when he finished T-8, Els made the annual spring pilgrimage to Augusta each of the next 17 years. The prime portion of that run came from 2000-04, when he never finished worse than T-6 and was twice a runner-up.
It was in 2004 that he came closest, edged by Phil Mickelson on the final putt of what turned out to be one of the most memorable Masters ever. Els began the final round three shots off the lead but made a pair of eagles down the stretch to surge up the leaderboard.
“He’s got the green jacket by the collar,” proclaimed TV analyst David Feherty after Els birdied the par-5 15th to take a two-shot lead over Mickelson.
But it’s Mickelson, not Els, who now wears clothing with a logo commemorating the conclusion of that particular tournament. Els could only sit idly by on the putting green, preparing for a playoff that would never come, while Mickelson rolled in the most iconic putt of his career to win by a shot.
“The ’04 Masters is one that I was really disappointed about for a long time, but looking back now, I’m proud to have been involved in that battle. It’s really one of the great battles of my career,” Els said. “It’s kind of like, when I didn’t get that one, the writing was kind of on the wall, I think.”
As Mickelson prepares to return to a course where he has won twice more since then, he can barely square the notion that Els might be making his final appearance.
“It’s hard to believe that may be the case,” Mickelson said. “He’s such a good player. I have a hard time believing it will be his last.”
Like Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel grew up in Els’ shadow in South Africa. But he has since earned a seat at the annual champions’ dinner that may have once been reserved for Els, having surged to victory in 2011, and he points to 2004 as the fork in the road for his one-time idol.
“That one really hurt him,” Schwartzel said. “I think it’s one of those where, if you don’t do it early enough, it becomes a ‘thing.’ And once it becomes a ‘thing’ in this game – man, you’re fighting elements that you don’t even want to be fighting.”
True to Schwartzel’s words, Els hasn’t come close to winning the Masters since that duel with Mickelson. His consecutive appearance streak came to an end when he missed the 2012 edition of the tournament, only to be granted a five-year extension with his surprise win at Royal Lytham later that summer.
But the first four of those return trips haven’t yielded a top-10 result, leading Els to reflect on where things went wrong on a course he so dearly loves.
“I just think I always put a bit too much pressure on myself around Augusta,” he said. “Growing up in South Africa, seeing it on TV, starting to live it. And I think I was impatient a lot of times. Not taking my medicine, not playing the proper shot and then going from there. So I think that cost me.”
This time around, Els returns to Augusta a shell of his former self. He is ranked No. 409 in the world, having cracked the top 50 just once in 17 worldwide starts since last year’s Open. Once a fresh-faced newcomer, Els is now 47 with his best years admittedly well behind him.
“I feel sorry for him. I do,” Schwartzel said. “I just really feel sorry because I can see his mind is still thinking and he believes – and he practices now harder than he used to – that he’s still as good as he was 10 years ago. Somehow he’s just not able to do it now. Maybe the simple answer is age. I don’t know. I’ve heard him talk about it; I can see it almost hurts him. It’s frustrating, and I think humiliating for him, too.”
If the close call in 2004 was Els’ most heartbreaking chapter, last year served as his most cringe-worthy. After experimenting with a new putting technique early in the week, Els suffered what he now terms a “blip” that led to a six-putt from close range on the very first hole of the tournament.
It’s a replay that struck fear into the heart of anyone who has ever picked up a club, but it’s a memory that Els is able to laugh off one year later.
“It’s so embarrassing that people still don’t even want to go there, even my friends who have really helped me,” he said. “You play this game long enough, you’re going to embarrass yourself a couple of times. So that was one of them.”
It’s the type of disaster that might shake a player to his core, but Els continued with his round and eventually shot an 80. The next day he rebounded with 73, nearly making the cut, and went on to finish third in strokes gained putting the very next week at the RBC Heritage.
“I think there would have been a lot of guys walking off the golf course, or at least playing 18 holes and withdrawing,” Oosthuizen said. “He’s got too much respect for golf in general, and especially the Masters. But that was a tough event for him.”
“I think the membership liked it because I think if I would have walked off, it might have set a different tone to the thing,” Els said. “You’ve got to set an example. You’re not always going to be a winner. You’re going to be a loser sometimes, and you’ve got to handle it.”
It’s a phenomenon with which Els has more than his fair share of experience around the famed fairways and greens of Augusta National. Time and again, try as he might, the prize that always seemed like it would eventually end up on his doorstep found a way to remain just outside his grasp.
Yes, Els could one day earn another invite – contend next week, perhaps win for the 20th time on the PGA Tour, or crack the top 4 at one of the other major championships. But he instead intends to focus on the most likely scenario: that this will be his last, languid stroll down Magnolia Lane, flanked this time by those who mean the most to him.
Now in the twilight of a career filled with plenty of highlights, Els has come to terms with the fact that, for him, the Masters will always be a matter of “what could have been.”
“It is what it is,” he said. “If you don’t win it in 20-whatever starts, 23 starts, how many starts do you need to win a golf tournament?”