While Phil Mickelson celebrated victory with his family, Els gave his putter a dejected flip and walked away, an aching void in his heart that only a win at Augusta National will fill.
'It's very tough for me to explain how I feel right now,' a somber Els said Sunday night, after missed birdie putts on the 17th and 18th holes left him one stroke behind Mickelson. 'I just said to my wife and my dad, 'I gave it my absolute best, especially today.' I'm very disappointed now, but I'll get over this. I feel like I'll win a major this year.
'I would have loved to have won this one.'
The 34-year-old is one of the best players of his generation, already a three-time major winner.
But the Masters has always held a special place for him. He used to stay up deep into the night half a world away to watch it with his father, and he's dreamed of winning it since he was 8, when fellow South African Gary Player put on the green jacket.
He had felt all week that this was finally his year, and it seemed as if he might be right after making two eagles in a closing 5-under-par 67, his best round of the week. But just like in 2000, when he finished second to Vijay Singh after squandering birdie chances on his final three holes, it wasn't meant to be.
The pain would be the same, regardless. But adding to the agony was the 20 minutes he had to wait between his finish and Mickelson's approach to the 18th green. Els couldn't bear to watch, knowing there was absolutely nothing he could do.
'You've done what you've done. I played as good as I could. You're just ...' He paused, trying to find the right words. 'You're there in another guy's hands.'
And after falling spectacularly short so many times, Mickelson finally broke through. He drained an 18-footer for birdie to win his first major, setting off a raucous celebration on the green as Els quietly slipped away.
'I'll have another shot,' he said. 'I'm sure of it.'
But he will wonder about these missed opportunities. Beginning the day three strokes behind Mickelson and Chris DiMarco, Els' game was sputtering until an eagle on the par-5 No. 8 gave him the lead.
His second shot hit a ridge on the left side of the green and trickled down to settle 5 feet from the hole. He had to scramble to save par when his second shot on No. 9 went six rows into the gallery behind the green, but he made it look easy with a chip shot a few feet below the pin.
He moved to 7 under - two strokes ahead of Mickelson - with another eagle on the par-5 13th, knocking the ball to 12 feet from 206 yards out. He followed with a gutty save on 14 after driving into the trees.
Then came what might have been the defining two holes in the tournament, had he won. On a slope behind the 15th green, Els chipped within 1 foot, tapping in for a birdie that put him at 8 under.
At 16, he left himself 45 feet on a huge-breaking, right-to-left downhiller. He ran the first putt 10 feet past but made the comebacker to save par.
'I was trying to push,' he said. 'I was hitting the ball very solid. I was feeling so good out there, I felt I could have birdied every hole the way I was playing.'
But he didn't. He two-putted from 17 feet on the par-4 17th, then missed a 25-footer by eight inches on 18. As the ball skittered past the hole, a grim look crossed his face.
'I'm going to look myself in the mirror tonight and say, 'Well done,'' Els said. 'It's one of those things. That's golf. I've had some good wins and I've had some tough losses, and this is one of the tough losses.'
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