Beyond the classic golf, The Masters is also known for these things.
USA TODAY Sports
AUGUSTA, Ga. — There were no tears. No long, lingering gaze from the 18th green to capture one more image of Augusta National in his mind.
His score aside, Ernie Els left the Masters for what could be the final time Sunday without sadness or regret.
“It’s a wonderful place. It’s a great run,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll win a tournament and get back. If not, it’s fine. I had a great time.”
British Open champions are guaranteed entry at the Masters for five years. Els won his second claret jug in 2012, making this the last time he was assured a spot at Augusta National.
Oh, he can get in other ways. By finishing in the top four of a major, for example, or being in the top 50 of the world rankings. But at 47, the odds of that are as long as his drives once were, and Els made this week something of a celebratory sendoff.
Old friends from South Africa made the trip, along with others he’s known for 30 years. As his wife, Liezl, walked the course Sunday, fans greeted her warmly, occasionally offering a positive comment about Els’ game. One fan following him had a South African flag tucked into her visor. Another wore a baseball cap and shirt in the design of South Africa’s flag.
And on almost every hole, Els was greeted with extended applause and, on a few occasions, standing ovations.
“It was just nice to play. I, obviously, didn’t play good again, but it’s nice to go around again,” said Els, who tapped his unsuspecting wife with his club on his way to the eighth tee, giving her a big smile and wink when she turned around.
Els was first off Sunday, and played with a marker. He birdied Nos. 7 and 8 and just missed a putt on No. 9 that would have made it three in a row. But he had double bogeys on 13 and 14, and finished with a 78 that left him 20 over for the tournament.
“I don’t really feel that emotional, I think, just because of my play,” Els said. “If I played better, I think it would have been a different feeling. But it was a good weekend, beautiful weather and nice to play four rounds.”
There was a time the question was not whether Els would win a green jacket, but how many. A big hitter who was a superb putter and an even better chipper, his game was made for the Masters.
The Big Easy didn’t get flustered, either. He tied for eighth in his Masters debut in 1994. Two months later, he won at Oakmont, the first of his four major championships and one of two U.S. Open titles.
“I loved putting on these greens — and I still do, believe it or not,” Els said. “That’s definitely the thing that helped me for Oakmont. Because Oakmont is very similar slopes, similar speed, and I was, I loved putting at Oakmont.”
But Els never did win here. He came close, finishing second in 2000 and in the top six each of the next three years. Then, in 2004, he shot a 67 on Sunday and was tied with Phil Mickelson atop the leaderboard when he finished.
But Mickelson was two groups behind. Els spent the next 30 minutes or so on the putting green, practicing for a playoff that would never come. Mickelson would make a birdie on the 18th to break the tie and win his first green jacket.
“It was just the start of his great run and it was almost like my run came to an end when he started,” Els said earlier this week. “So it is what it is. One guy’s ecstasy is another guy’s, you know, whatever you call it. Agony. Agony.”
Still, this was the 23rd time Els had played the Masters, a feat in itself. Think of all the great names the game has had, and there won’t be many who had this kind of longevity at Augusta National.
“To have been a part of it for 23, 24 years is special,” Els said. “It’s a place where you dream to get to once or twice. And to do it for so long was great.”
Els isn’t calling it a career, nor is he ready to concede the Masters to the youngsters. But he’s realistic enough to know that his next trip to Augusta National will probably be as a spectator.
“This tournament is just not for me,” he said. “I’ve won a lot of events around the world, but this one just eluded me. And that’s fine.”