- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Listening to him talk about it, you’d think Ernie Els won last year’s Masters.

“Incredible,” he says of the noise generated by the galleries coming down the stretch on the final day. “I’ve never felt that.

“The most special Sunday afternoon stroll I’ve ever had,” he goes on. “K.J. [Choi, his playing partner], making his [eagle from the fairway] on 11. Those two holes-in-one [on 16 by Padraig Harrington and Kirk Triplett]. I made eagle on 13. Phil making his charge the last seven holes. It was just electric, really.”

Many a golfer would exercise his Mark McGwire rights (“I’m not here to talk about the past”) when asked about the most eviscerating moment of his career. But here Els was, waxing nostalgic about a tournament that ended with Mickelson rolling in an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole — and depriving the “Big Easy,” once again, of a green jacket.

All in all, he says, “It was a wonderful afternoon.”

Which might explain why he didn’t fall into a funk — or turn into a Funk — after this latest Masters heartbreak. The very next week, he climbed back on the horse, tying for third in the Heritage. And soon after that he blew away the field in the Memorial with a 66-66 on the weekend. Indeed, since his “incredible,” “special,” “electric,” “wonderful” defeat last year at Augusta National, Els probably has played the best golf of his life, racking up four titles, nearly winning his second British Open and jostling with Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh for the No.1 world ranking.

As globe-straddling golfers go, Ernie — one foot planted firmly in the U.S., the other in Europe and environs — might be the best since Gary Player. Consider: At 35, which is how old Els is now, Player had 15 victories on the PGA Tour, 33 more internationally and five majors. Ernie’s current totals: 15 victories on the PGA Tour, 38 internationally and three majors.

And his fourth may be only a few days off. The guy has to win here sometime, doesn’t he? He’s finished in the top six for five years straight, including two solo seconds. In fact, there may not be another event he’s played so consistently well in — and had so little to show for it.

(On top of that, he’s undoubtedly sick and tired of ordering takeout the night of the annual champions’ dinner. Like any great player, Els wants in, wants a seat at the Round Table with King Bobby’s other knights. He’s won the U.S. Open, he’s won the British, but the Masters, for some reason, has yet to submit to his will.)

“Right from the get-go” — when he tied for eighth in his first appearance in ‘94 — “I think my expectations here have always been to win this tournament,” he says. “If I never [do that], I’ve still played some good golf here, and I’ve had some good times here. But obviously, winning is everything right now.”

Last year was the closest he’s come. He went out on Sunday and shot a 67 — the lowest score of any of the contenders — and, under the pressure-filled circumstances, couldn’t have done much better. But while he was killing time on the practice tee, anticipating a playoff with Mickelson, Phil decided it was his time, not Ernie’s, and made the fifth of his back-nine birdies to capture his first major.

“I still feel good about the 18 holes I played last year, the final day,” Els says. “That’s the way you need to play this golf course — or the way I need to play this golf course. … Be aggressive when I can be, stay back a little bit here and there. You can’t go for every flag. I think, with experience, I’ve learned a lot of lessons here.”

And so he’s gearing up for another go at it. He was in peak form last month, winning consecutive tournaments in Dubai and Qatar, and now he’s trying to get his game back to that level. The flu bug bit him last week, curtailing his preparations, but the drive down Magnolia Lane to Augusta National’s clubhouse has amazing curative powers, almost like Lourdes. The aches and pains fade magically away — to be replaced, in Ernie’s case, by hunger pangs.

“If you give yourself just one opportunity to win here, I think you’ve done very well,” he says. “Obviously, I’ve given myself numerous opportunities … [and] it hasn’t happened. All I can do is prepare, stay focused, try and hit the shots I need to and, at the end of the day, have a bit of luck going my way.”

As we’ve discovered these past five years, not everything is easy for the “Big Easy.” Rounds of 68 and 67 on the final day of the Masters, marvelous efforts with the green jacket up for grabs, haven’t been quite good enough. But that will just make victory here all the sweeter — if and when it comes.

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