Why the Big Easy never won the Masters.
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.