In golf ' in any form of competition ' you cant be afraid to fail. Not it you want to succeed.
Few players in todays time have been as successful as Ernie Els. That list would include Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, and thats about it.
And few players have suffered failure in the same manner as Els. That list would include Greg Norman, and thats about it.
Els has won 15 times on the PGA Tour and 36 other times ' officially ' around the world. Three of those 51 combined wins, however, stand above the rest. Those three ' the 1994 U.S. Open, 1997 U.S. Open and 2002 British Open ' are major championships.
I play to win majors, Els had said. Thats what its all about.
Major championships are the ultimate prize in golf. Winning one can provide ultimate satisfaction. Losing one can offer ultimate despondency.
Winning a major championship ' let alone three ' is not an easy accomplishment. You only get four opportunities a year to capture one, and rarely does a player put himself in position to do so and actually pull it off.
Players always say: just give me a chance. They just want a chance to win a major championship, just the opportunity to be in the mix on Sunday.
Els got that chance in 2004 ' four times over. And he felt four times the pain of anyone in any of those tournaments, failing to win a single one.
It all began in April at Augusta.
He was three down through three rounds of the Masters Tournament, trailing Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco. But before he could reach the back nine on Sunday, he was in sole possession of the lead.
Els eagled the par-5 eighth to take a one-stroke advantage, a margin he upped to three with another eagle at the par-5 13th.
Leading by three with five holes to play, one might think that it was Els tournament to win or lose, when in fact he really did neither.
Els helped his cause with a birdie on the par-5 15th, but he closed with three pars. That wasnt enough to win the tournament. Still, playing the final round at Augusta National in 67, it wasnt as if he blew it either.
There was just no denying Mickelson this time.
Major-less Mickelson shed that label by shooting 5-under 31 on the back nine, sealing his first major victory with an 18-foot birdie on the final hole.
After finishing his round ' having played in front of Mickelson ' Els signed his scorecard and went to the practice range. He knew the crowd would let him know if there would be a playoff or not. And when he heard the roar, all he could do was close his eyes and shake his head.
Im very disappointed now, but I'll get over this, no problem. I feel like I'll win a major this year, he said.
Opportunity No. 2 came in June at Shinnecock.
He was paired with Retief Goosen in the final group in the final round of the 104th U.S. Open, trailing his countryman by two strokes. This time, he had a chance to look his opponent right in the eyes, play him head-to-head, shot-for-shot.
Only Goosen took 71 shots on Sunday; Els all of 80.
On a day in which 28 players out of 66 failed to break into the 70s, none of the scores were more shocking than the one posted by Els, who could have become the No. 1 player in the world with a win.
The baked-out greens cracked and crumbled under his feet, opened up into a chasm and swallowed him whole almost immediately.
Els took double bogey at the first. He birdied the third, but bogeyed Nos. 4, 5 and 7. And after another double at 8, Els was seven back of Goosen.
He would say, after the debacle, that he was just trying to stay out of Goosens way on the back nine. And he would say that long after leaving Shinnecok, where he stormed past reporters after shooting his highest-ever score in a U.S. Open.
The Masters was heartbreaking. The U.S. Open was mind boggling. But neither compared to the emotional toll exacted on Els at the British Open.
This one hurt. A lot.
It hurt so much because of what he had already endured on the year. It hurt because he had the lead early on Sunday but gave it away. It hurt because he rallied late and had a 7-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation to win the championship ' and left it short. It hurt because Hamilton bogeyed the final hole and gave Els another opportunity at being the Open champion ' and he couldnt take advantage. It hurt because he was unable to make a single birdie in the four-hole cumulative playoff. It hurt because he had another crucial putt on 18, nearly identical to the one before, and he again failed to convert ' this time to extend the playoff.
While Hamilton was accepting the claret jug, Els stood off to the side, holding his silver medal in stunned silence.
Less than three weeks later, Els was sitting in a press conference prior to the start of the International. He was asked if he looked forward to the years final major or if he was a bit apprehensive, wondering what potential calamity could be in store.
The Masters, I really didn't feel very disappointed after that one, unlike after the Open, he said. Obviously, Shinnecock was a disaster.
Still, I've come this close, so obviously I'm doing something right. Something is good in my game. It's just not quite there right at the end product; it's not quite there yet.
I think there's a bit of down still in me, which will come out and hopefully it will come out at the PGA.
It wasnt to be.
Els started the final round at Whistling Straits four back of Vijay Singh. Yet, despite making four birdies and four bogeys over his first 17 holes, somehow, someway, Els was still in contention when he headed to the 18th.
After scrambling to get within 6 feet of the hole, Els missed the par putt. And he ultimately missed out on a playoff by that one stroke.
I don't know if you deserve anything in this game, but you put a lot of effort in it and get that close, you know ' obviously I'm disappointed, Els would later say. It's done, it's dusted, and I'm looking forward to the future. Let's forget about the past. I've got to move on. I'm looking forward to that.