- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 10, 2013

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - For almost 20 years, Ernie Els had a standing invite to the Masters.

Last year, his name wasn’t on the guest list.

This year, he’s back after a surprise victory at the 2012 British Open gave him a get-in-free card for the next five years.

“That’s all you can ask for at my age,” the 43-year-old said Wednesday. “To be able to play with the top players in the world at this level for the next five years means the world.”

From the first time he played here, there’s been something about Augusta National that agrees with Els. He tied for eighth in his debut in 1994. He’s been runner-up twice, in 2000 and 2004, and never finished lower than sixth in the years in between.

He’s missed only four cuts in the 18 times he’s played, and failed to crack the top 25 another four years.

“I feel when I’m on my game, this place is perfect for me because it really tests your everything,” he said. “Your mental strength, your patience. And then, physically, you’ve got to drive the ball, irons as well, chip and putt _ all of that stuff. You can’t fluke winning it.”

As difficult as it is to win, it’s almost as tough to get in.

For 18 straight years, that wasn’t a problem for Els. His major championships _ he won the 1994 and `97 U.S. Opens as well as the 2002 British Open _ earned him five-year exemptions, and it was a rare year when he wasn’t in the top 20 on the PGA Tour.

But after winning twice in 2010, his career began a downward spiral. He was winless in 2011, and missed the cut at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. His only top-10 finish was a fourth at the Frys.com Open, a Fall Series event when most of the golf world has already wound down for the season.

He fell to 93rd on the PGA Tour money list, the first time he’d been out of the 50 since his second season.

Els knew he’d have to scramble early in the 2012 season to reclaim his spot at the Masters, and he was in the top five at the Transitions Championship and Bay Hill. Needing a win at the Houston Open to get to Augusta National, he finished in a tie for 12th.

Though there was talk of giving Els a special exemption, that’s all it was _ talk.

So for the first time since 1993, he spent Masters week at home.

“Obviously, I missed not being here,” he said. “I had a good run in March last year and I knew what I needed to do. I just kind of fell short. It was fine, really. It was almost better they didn’t invite me because I felt I could play myself back in here. And that’s the way it should be.”

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