AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – Ernie Els leaned back against his locker inside the Augusta National clubhouse early Sunday afternoon, a bottle of apple juice in his hand, knowing he had probably just played his final Masters round.
After 23 starts, Els will have to play his way back into The Masters next year, his five-year exemption for winning the 2012 Open Championship having expired. Rounds of 72-75-83-78 this year may be the final line written in Els’ Masters story.
He’s won two U.S. Opens and two Open Championships but for whatever reason it never happened at Augusta National.
“I never got that harmony with the course. I was always going against the grain,” the 47-year-old South African said.
“The mistakes I would make I would compound them. I was one of those guys, me and the golf course never got to know each other very well.
“So be it. If it’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen.”
Sitting in the locker room, Els talked about playing with Jack Nicklaus when the Golden Bear shot 68 on Sunday as a 58-year-old in 1998, giving himself a chance to win until the back nine.
From 2000 through 2004, Els never finished worse than sixth and he was second twice. He thought he might win in ’04 when he shot 67 on Sunday but Phil Mickelson birdied the 18th hole to beat him.
He laments being cautious on birdie putts at the 17th and 18th hole that day, quietly hoping Mickelson might make a mistake at the end. Instead, it was Els’ mistake.
“That really stung me. It still stings me,” Els said. “But I look back now and it’s kind of an historic event …
“We’ve had some good times.”
For a place with such deep emotional ties to so many, Els wasn’t wistful on what is likely his final Sunday as a competitor. That may come later but Els said he played so poorly over the weekend here that he wants to put the moment out of his mind, at least temporarily.
He still believes he can win on the PGA Tour and he will try again this week at the RBC Heritage but he needs to get his mind right, he said.
Augusta National and Els seemed perfect for each other but the pieces never fully fit.
“The blend wasn’t drinkable,” Els said, laughing softly.
If Sunday was the end, Els will take happy memories with him and keep them with the pieces of Masters crystal he won through the years. He has a nice collection of cut glass from Augusta National.
“I’ve got all kinds of stuff,” Els said, “just not a jacket.”