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Els once again in position for Masters run

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Ernie Els isn’t currently in the Masters field.

Sit back and read that last sentence again.

A man who has been a stalwart amongst the world’s elite players for nearly two full decades, one who has seen more heartache and heartbreak at Augusta National Golf Club than anyone not named Greg Norman or Roberto De Vicenzo, one whose foundation helped teach two recent champions from his home country of South Africa, is without a tee time for the year’s first major championship less than two weeks ahead of time.

Let’s face it: You want to see him there, I want to see him there and – bet your faux green jacket on this one – Ernie wants to see himself there.

There’s just one small problem. This isn’t American Idol and we can’t burn up the phone lines insisting that the Augusta National membership proffer an invitation.

So instead Els is left trying to gain a spot the old fashioned way – by earning it.

On Saturday, he took another step toward reaching that goal. Els sauntered off the golf course at Bay Hill, a third-round 5-under 67 in his rearview mirror, an opportunity to claim his second Arnold Palmer Invitational title in three years clearly in front of him.

His familiar hulking frame then stepped up to the microphone and immediately the man known as The Big Easy was peppered with questions about the tournament.

Only thing is, it wasn’t this tournament. The queries all centered around that little invitational some 400 miles down the road. In one of the biggest subplots to the early part of the 2012 season, Els remains without a Masters invitation for the first time in 19 years, his long-standing streak of making the trek down Magnolia Lane very much in jeopardy.

And standing in a two-way tie for third place at 8-under, his chances of qualifying are coming down to a matter of some very intricate numbers.

Even Els is having trouble conjuring the various permutations.

“I know I've got to finish really almost winning,” he said. “I've got to almost win - or something like that.”

Here’s what we know: Just like every other player at every other regular season PGA Tour event, if Els wins, he’s in. No questions asked. No calculations necessary.

He had the very same opportunity last week, leading the Transitions Championship by one stroke with two holes to play, only to finish with a pair of bogeys to miss out on the playoff by a single shot.

If he finishes in sole possession of second place, he’s in as one of the top-50 on the Official World Golf Ranking at the end of this week. Such a result would be good enough to move him from his current position of 62nd to as high as 43rd – safely within the Augusta zone.

If he ties for second place, he’s probably in. Depends on how many others share that position, really. If it’s just one, he’s good; if it’s 10, he’s out.

If he finishes in sole possession of third place, well, that’s when things get really hairy. To get ultra technical, Els would earn 22.4 points for that result, which would be enough to put him squarely into the 50th position. But if, let’s say, Ryo Ishikawa – currently in a share of 50th place on the leaderboard and already with a special exemption into the Masters field -- finishes in solo 25th place, he would pass Els and push him back to 51st.

The OWGR numbers in that scenario: Ishikawa 2.667, Els 2.666.

It’s enough to leave your head spinning, which is one reason Els is less focused on the possibilities this week than he was last week. Instead, he’s just happy that his long struggling game has seemingly returned, his future prospects looking brighter – even if they don’t include an upcoming trip to Georgia.

“I feel my game is there,” he said after posting six birdies in the third round. “Whether I play in Augusta or not, you know, I'm pretty happy where I am now. I've been through the mill for the last 18 months in this game. And just to feel like it's coming around is really a gratifying feeling.”

As for receiving an invitation without qualification, Els has steadfastly maintained that while he wouldn’t turn it down, he isn’t seeking the offer, either.

“I'm certainly not going to be lobbying for it, and that's that,” he explained. “I haven't played well the last 18 months or so, and I am in the position where I am.”

With all of that in mind, Sunday’s final round will be do-or-die time when it comes to Els’ chances for a 19th consecutive Masters appearance. He doesn’t quite know what he needs and we don’t quite know what he needs, but something will be determined by the time the final putt drops.

Well, sort of.

If he doesn’t get in, Els will travel to Houston for next week’s PGA Tour event. The winner there will qualify for what would be the final spot in the field.

The way he’s been playing lately, Ernie Els just may pull it off.