Ernie Els knew the subject of conversation before any question was ever asked about the Masters.
“My swan song?” he said.
The 47-year-old four-time major winner from South Africa returns to Augusta National for the 23rd time in 24 years. His five-year exemption for winning the 2012 British Open at Royal Lytham runs out this year.
“I’ve had 23 goes at it and had a great time,” Els said. “I’ve got to do something special to get back there. I’m not really looking at it as my last one, but if it is, it is.”
Els is renting two houses in Augusta this year, enough room to accommodate some extra family and friends who haven’t been to the Masters in a few years. He’s ready to smell the azaleas, so to speak, for one last celebratory go-round for one of golf’s greatest champions.
“I’ve put a lot of energy into that event, and that’s why after 23 times there I’m not really looking at going to win,” he said. “I’m hoping to have a nice week, and if I can play the four rounds that’ll be great and that’ll be that. A lot of guys have never had the opportunity to have a chance to win, and I’ve had a couple of chances to win. So I knew how that felt like. It didn’t quite go my way. I just want to have a good week.”
Els admits that his Augusta memories will always have a little bitterness mixed in with the sweet. That’s the nature of a sport that too often tears a player’s heart out when they want something too much.
After finishing tied for eighth in his 1994 debut just a couple months before winning the first of two U.S. Opens, Els twice finished runner-up in his quest to join countryman Gary Player at the Champions Dinner table. The second time in 2004, when Phil Mickelson drained a long birdie on the 18th green to avoid a playoff, took a toll on Els.
When he heard the roar come as he was staying loose on the adjacent putting green, Els visibly slumped. His fight for the green jacket went with him, as he never again challenged in the Masters after a run of five top-six finishes from 2000-04.
“I think there’ll always be a little bit of bitterness,” Els said. “That’s just the way it is. I had such a great start to the event in 1994 and finishing eighth and finishing second in 2000 and ’04 almost winning. Ever since then it’s been kind of a tough road for me. But I’ll always look back on it as one I always wanted to win and couldn’t win.
“I fell out of patience with the place. I guess it’s a mindset you go in with. Certain players get really good breaks and fall in love with the place and just know if they hit it they’ve got a good chance of getting a good bounce. And those certain players have won one, two, three, four of them. They kind of figured it out. You can’t tell me a bounce I don’t know on the place, but for me I kind of got on the wrong side of it and momentum went kind of against me and that’s that. I look at Phil, who won quite a few Masters, but you can say the same thing about him at the U.S. Open. The Masters will always have a little bit of sting to it, but not in a bad way.”
Part of that sting took place on the opening hole a year ago when Els took six putts from inside 4 feet to take a 9 en route to an 80 and another missed cut.
“It’s tough to be kind of the laughingstock for awhile,” he said. “Your tournament is effectively over and everybody is kind of looking at you in a little different way, but that’s golf. … You play this game long enough, you are going to embarrass yourself a couple of times. That was one of them. I don’t think about it too much. I’ve moved on from there. My stats say I’ve moved on. It was just a blip.”
Els’ overall game, however, hasn’t been up to the Big Easy’s soaring standards. Since missing the cut at last year’s Masters, he’s had only four finishes better than 64th in 24 starts, including 14 missed cuts.
“I feel sorry for him, I really do,” said Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion who grew up with Els as his mentor and hero. “I can see his mind is still thinking and believes – and he practices now harder than he used to – that he’s still as good as he was 10 years ago. Somehow he’s just not able to do it now. Maybe the simple answer is just age. I don’t know. I’ve heard him talk about it. I can see it almost hurts him. It’s frustrating and I think humiliating for him, too.”
Els, a former world No. 1 now ranked 392nd, remains determined to turn his game around and continue competing worldwide. He started working again with swing instructor David Leadbetter to get things resolved.
“I think I was kind of searching a bit, but now with (David) I’ve been with him full time to work on stuff I can go forward with,” he said. “I’m starting to get a couple niggles here and there with my body. If I can stay healthy, I just want to have good events until I’m done.”
Els plans to “say goodbye properly” to the Masters, enjoying all the best elements from playing the Par-3 Contest with his daughter, Samantha, as his caddie to eating with family in the clubhouse, spending time with the members and employees he’s gotten to know through nearly a quarter century of visiting the club.
“I think deep inside you would know he’s walking around Augusta playing because of what he’s done in the game,” Schwartzel said. “But he might still hope somehow that maybe he gets it right. But I think if reality sets in he’s just like ‘have a nice time.’”
Els knows it might be his last Masters as a participant, but it won’t be the last time he comes to Augusta in April.
“I’ll probably go back there as just a spectator,” he said. “I’ll go have a cocktail and hang and watch. It’ll be good.”