Early Sunday morning, seven hours before the leaders reached the back nine and the tournament really started, Ernie Els started what will likely be his last round at the Masters. For the last five years Els has qualified automatically because he won the Open in 2012. The exemption is about to run out and, given that Els is 47, is currently ranked No410 in the world and has missed the cut in nine of his last 10 tournaments, he may struggle to find a way back. Time was when Els would have had a late afternoon tee-time himself on Sunday. Between 2000 and 2004, he finished second, sixth, fifth, sixth, and second again, a perennial contender who never quite got it done. Now, he says he’s been “trying to look around” as he plays, “just in case this is the last one”.
Els was playing with Jeff Knox, the man the club sends out to make up the numbers when an odd number of players makes the cut. Els strung together two good rounds, a 72 and a 75, but blew up on Saturday, when he shot an 11-over-par 83. It was the worst round he has played here since he made his Masters debut in 1994. Knox is good company and for Els it made for an easy Sunday morning, one last leisurely turn around Augusta National. Like all golfers who come back here, when Els looks around he does not see the shots he is about to hit but the ones he has already played.
A good crowd came out to watch him at the 1st tee, where 23 year ago the locals first saw that handsome swing of his. He finished eighth that year, behind José María Olazábal. He was only 24 and he won his first major, the US Open at Oakmont, later that year. Most reckoned it was a matter of time before he won the Masters too. More recently, he has some ugly memories of the 1st hole as well. In 2016 he was struggling with the yips, and took six putts at the 1st green, so many, in fact that the scorers lost count and told everyone he would have taken seven.
Els has got his putting game back together again. It was working well for him on Sunday, when he made par on four of the first five holes, each with tap-ins after tidy putts from a few long strides away across the green. At the 7th he finally sunk one, and made his first birdie. Some of Els’s very favourite memories of Augusta are from this hole. In 1998 he was paired with Jack Nicklaus in the final round. Nicklaus was 58 and had not won a major since his famous victory here in 1986. Els had stayed up to watch that one on TV back in South Africa. He was 16 at the time and his father let him break his curfew as “a special treat”.
In ’98 Nicklaus started the final round five shots behind but made three birdies in the first six holes to move within two shots of the lead. Augusta came alive. “I was completely awed,” Els said. “I almost forgot about playing I got so caught up rooting for him.” When Nicklaus made a 15-foot putt for birdie at the 7th, Els could not help but burst into happy laughter. In the end Nicklaus shot 68. At the 18th he rolled his birdie putt to two inches. Els insisted Nicklaus mark it so that he could hole out and Nicklaus could have the green to himself for his tap-in and the ensuing standing ovation.
In the years that followed some of those ovations at the 18th did not sound nearly so sweet. In 2000 Els was two shots behind Vijay Singh when he reached the 16th. But he missed a series of putts coming up the stretch and finished second. Then in 2002 he closed to within three shots of Tiger Woods at Amen Corner, when Woods dropped a shot at the 11th. Two holes ahead Els pulled his tee shot into the trees. Instead of punching out he tried to play up the fairway. His ball hit a branch and fell into Rae’s Creek. From there Els took a drop, then hit a pitch that caught on the bank and rolled back into the water. He finished up with a triple bogey.
The one that hurt worst of all, though, was in 2004. That year Els shot 67 in the final round and had the clubhouse lead at eight under par. He had to wait on the practice green while Phil Mickelson came up the stretch. Mickelson made an 18-foot putt for birdie on the 18th. And while everyone else at Augusta rose to their feet, Els slumped to the ground. “One man’s ecstasy,” said Els, “is another man’s agony.” Mickelson said earlier this week that he felt Els “still had a lot of game in him” and could yet win here. Els is not sure. “If it doesn’t happen again, I’m fine,” he says, “I’ve had a great time.”
This Sunday he made 78 and doffed his cap to thank the crowd as they gave him one last ovation of his own.