JOHANNESBURG – Five years ago, Ernie Els didn’t make it to the Masters. He’d been playing the first major of the year every year since 1994, and, although he had not met the strict criteria for entry into the tournament at Augusta National, there was some popular pressure for a special invitation to be issued to him.
In a year during which he was still using the belly putter, his putting let him down during the Transitions Championship. He was poised to win, which would have given him an automatic invitation to drive down Magnolia Lane.
With a one-shot lead, he missed a four-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole. Needing to make par on the 18th hole to join the playoff, he tried to jam the four-foot putt into the cup with his belly putter and pulled it badly.
“I was so hot I found it difficult to even think straight,” Els said the next day on his website. “I’ve had a night to sleep on it, though. It still hurts the way I finished the tournament, but I know in my heart how well I played well week. I have to believe that if I keep doing what I’m doing, the results will reflect that and I’ll give myself plenty more opportunities to win.”
In the end, with a few more opportunities to get into the Masters squandered, Els himself made it clear that he didn’t want the ‘charity’ of the Masters – which was not going to be forthcoming, in any case.
And three months later, he showed that he perhaps could have been a contender at Augusta National as he hauled in a flagging Adam Scott to win his second Open Championship and regain his place at the high table of golf.
That second taste of the Claret Jug has meant that Els hasn’t had to rely on charity to get to Augusta National for the last five years, and he tees it up with the most select field in golf next week for the last time on the five-year exemption that major victory gave him.
His record in the tournament is remarkable, and the only thing missing from that list of achievements is a green jacket, which would have made him a member of a three-man South African club consisting of Gary Player, Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel. He has 12 pairs of crystal goblets from making eagles during the tournament. He twice won a crystal vase for having the low score of the round. And he has two silver medals and silver trays from being the runner-up in 2000 and 2004.
He played in the tournament every year from 1994 to 2011. And after that enforced break in 2012, he missed the cut twice and finished in a share of 13th in 2013 and 22nd in 2015.
If he wants to be back at Augusta National in 2018, and he wants to make sure of that well ahead of time, a green jacket would be the best possible way. Either that, or finishing inside the top 12, which would give him one more year.