By Ed Osmond
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - It was not the U.S. Masters farewell Ernie Els would have wanted but the smooth-swinging South African was looking pretty cheerful as he walked off an 18th green bathed in warm sunshine on Sunday.
The four-times major champion and former world number one has never worn the Augusta Green Jacket, two runners-up spots being the highlights of his 23 trips to the year's first major.
After many battles with the game's finest players, Els played the final round in the company of a marker in the shape of Augusta member Jeff Knox and his scratchy 78 left him rock bottom of the field on 20 over par.
The 47-year-old known as "The Big Easy" strode towards the clubhouse to a smattering of polite applause before reflecting on his Masters career.
"It's just special to be here again at this amazing event," a beaming Els told reporters.
"To have been able to come here for 23 years, to somewhere you dreamed of playing at has been an incredible experience.
"I don't feel too emotional right now but that's probably because of the way I played. I was atrocious."
The five-year Masters exemption Els received for winning the 2012 British Open runs out this year and he will have to win a PGA Tour event to qualify for the Augusta major.
He has not given up hope of doing that but the likelihood is that he will not get another chance to play the event in which he finished second to Fiji's Vijay Singh in 2000 and to American Phil Mickelson in 2004.
The dramatic last-round duel with Mickelson will go down in Masters history.
Els shot a brilliant 67 that looked set to earn him a playoff at least, but the left-hander drained an 18-foot birdie putt to win his first major.
Els said his fondest memories of Augusta were from his first appearance in 1994 when he got to play with American former champion Ben Crenshaw and Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal who went on to win the tournament.
"That was incredible to play with Ben who was an absolute Masters specialist and Jose Maria who was the champion that year," said Els, who lifted the U.S. Open trophy a few weeks after his Augusta debut.
He won the same major again in 1997 and twice got his hands on the British Open Claret Jug.
The Green Jacket remained elusive though.
"This tournament was just not for me," he grinned. "But I have loved every minute of being here and I'll come back somehow. Maybe just to have a couple of beers."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)