ERNIE ELS

Why the Big Easy never won the Masters.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Stu­art McLean

Ernie Els ap­pears to have made peace with the fact that not only will he never wear a Masters green jacket, but also un­likely that he will ever play again in the tour­na­ment at Au­gusta Na­tional. His five-year ex­emp­tion for win­ning the 2012 Open has ex­pired. In fact, if he hadn’t un­ex­pect­edly won that Open at Royal Lytham, his last Masters would have been in 2011. No spe­cial in­vites are handed out; you have to qual­ify to play, and that means win­ning on the PGA Tour or be­ing in­side the top 50 of the world rank­ing.

The 47-year-old played in his 23rd Masters this April, and while he made the cut, week­end rounds of 83 and 78 were surely not the way the Big Easy would have wanted to exit one of his favourite weeks. “This tour­na­ment was just not for me,” he re­flected.“I’ve won a lot of events around the world, but this one just eluded me.And that’s fine.”

If we look back over the last 23 years, and an­a­lyse his 80 com­pet­i­tive rounds, it is clear now that Au­gusta Na­tional and Ernie Els were never tai­lor­made for each other. He was never truly com­fort­able there, per­haps be­cause of the in­tense con­cen­tra­tion the course re­quired, plus the con­stant pres­sure of be­ing a favourite in those early years.The ev­i­dence, as we will dis­cuss fur­ther on, can be found in the way he per­pet­u­ally strug­gled on the first day of the tour­na­ment.

The Masters was a tale of two halves for Els. From 1994, when he made his first ap­pear­ance at Au­gusta, un­til 2004, when he nar­rowly lost to Phil Mick­el­son in a thrilling fin­ish, he mostly looked a pos­si­ble contender. Be­tween 2000 and 2004 there were op­por­tu­ni­ties to win. He fin­ished sec­ond, T-6,T-5,T-6 and sec­ond. But in his last 12 ap­pear­ances he only twice made the top 20, and missed five cuts. His loss of con­fi­dence on the greens was a big fac­tor for this fall off in form, be­cause other older play­ers like Phil Mick­el­son and Fred Cou­ples con­tin­ued to shine at Au­gusta.

The truth about Els, though, at Au­gusta, was that he in­vari­ably got off to a slow start. Did you know that his first round ca­reer scor­ing av­er­age was a high 73.13? Even his av­er­age over the first 10 years was 72.8.

This was to hurt him the most in 2003, a year when this mag­a­zine boldly pre­dicted he might win the Masters.We put him on the cover of our April is­sue (right), wear­ing a jacket that was be­ing tai­lored to fit him, with a mea­sur­ing tape around his neck.

At the time Els was the hottest player on the planet, and had got back to No 2 on the world rank­ing be­hind Tiger Woods. He had be­gun the year with back-to-back vic­to­ries on the PGA Tour in Hawaii in Jan­uary, and then won two big Euro­pean Tour events in Fe­bru­ary.At the same time,Woods was off form and proved not to be a fac­tor in the ma­jors for two years.

What was Ernie’s open­ing round at Au­gusta? A dis­as­trous 79, his sec­ond worst start in 23 ap­pear­ances, beaten only by the 80 he scored in 2016. Per­haps the cover had jinxed him, but the re­al­ity was that he had suf­fered an un­lucky mishap in the buildup, sim­i­lar in a way to Dustin John­son’s fall prior to this year’s Masters. Els had in­jured his wrist work­ing out on a punch­ing bag in March which forced him to with­draw from the Play­ers Cham­pi­onship.The en­forced lay­off from golf se­verely cur­tailed his prepa­ra­tions for Au­gusta. He felt it most on the treach­er­ous Au­gusta greens.That 79 pos­si­bly gave the first hint of his up­com­ing putting is­sues. He had 34 putts, in­clud­ing a four-putt.

He fol­lowed it with a 66 on Fri­day, his low­est round at the Masters, but a 72 on Satur­day was a fur­ther frus­trat­ing round for him. Hav­ing holed out for an ea­gle two at seven, he ruined the prospect of a low round and a chance to get among a packed leader­board with bo­geys at 14 and 15. There he had a 7-iron for his sec­ond shot, and dumped it in the wa­ter. In the end Els fin­ished six shots be­hind sur­prise win­ner Mike Weir, af­ter clos­ing with a 70.

Only once in 23 Masters did Els break 70 on the first day, and that was just two years ago when he had a 67. Even that was over­shad­owed by Jor­dan Spi­eth’s 64, and Els played the last three rounds in three-over-par.

Els also sel­dom pro­duced a low round on Sun­day when he was within sight of the lead­ers. The ex­cep­tion was in 2004, when his clos­ing 67 got him to within one shot of Mick­el­son, who had to birdie the last to keep Els out of a play­off.That year he also shot 70 in the first round, so he wasn’t ham­strung by a weak start. Only four times in 17 Sun­days did he shoot in the 60s, and his ca­reer Sun­day stroke av­er­age was 72.18.

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