AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ernie Els is 45 years old. In golf terms he isn’t at the end, but he can see it from here, which was why he brought the whole family to Augusta this week — wife Liezl, daughter Samantha, son Ben.
They watched while Ernie played the Par 3 Contest for the first time in years, Samantha on the bag. Remember her? She played the cute, little school kid in that old PGA Tour commercial in which Ernie calls out a bunch of numbers and asks what they add up to. Now she’s in high school.
“We kind of are running out of time a little bit here,” Els said after shooting a 5-under 67 in the first round of the 79th Masters at sunny, damp Augusta National on Thursday. “So we really are trying to enjoy what we’ve got left.”
Els was in a four-way tie for second, three strokes behind Jordan Spieth (64).
Spieth is 21; Els is playing in his 21st Masters. But the biggest difference between the two is that everyone expected this from Spieth, who has posted a win and two second-place finishes in his last three starts.
Els? Not so much. He missed four straight cuts earlier this year. He has zero top-10 finishes. He’s using a new, lightweight shaft in his driver because, he said, “I’m getting on.” Amid all the talk of comebacks — Tiger, possibly Phil — exactly no one was talking about an Ernie Els comeback.
“The one positive has been recently I’ve been making a lot of birdies,” Els said. “At Bay Hill, I made 21 birdies; and Houston I made 20 birdies. So I was trying to, you know, drag something positive out of those weeks.”
Dragging. That’s what happens when you get to a certain age on Tour and the putts stop going in the holes. Els said upon sitting down in the media room, “I haven’t been in here for a while,” and everyone laughed. He knows many of the reporters by name. We’ve seen his highs, his lows. He missed the cut here last year, was 13th in 2013 and didn’t play in the 2012 Masters.
All of which was a little surprising.
Starting with a second-place finish in 2000 (Vijay Singh beat him by three) and ending with a wrenching runner up to Mickelson in ’04, Els authored five straight top-six finishes at the Masters. He looked destined to win, just as he had looked ever since his very first Masters in ’94, when he shot 67 in the second round while playing with Ben Crenshaw.
“He was so gracious, so nice,” Els said. “He said, ‘You know, you’re going to win this tournament — (laughter) — ‘if you keep putting like that.’”
But somehow Els never made good on the prediction. He couldn’t make enough putts to seriously threaten Singh in 2000. In 2003, when he tied for sixth, he might’ve won were it not for an opening-round 79. (He finished six behind the winner, Mike Weir.) He thought he had done enough to finally earn a green jacket in ’04, but Mickelson shot 31 on the back nine.
“I was really hoping for a playoff,” Els said, “and I was upset about that.” So upset, in fact, that when asked Thursday if his Masters record reflects a post-2004 hangover, Els immediately responded: “Definitely.”
He became an Augusta also-ran. Then he missed the cut three years in a row while he and Liezl came to terms with Ben’s autism. The low point may have been 2012, when Els didn’t qualify for the Masters. Still grinding for a last-minute exemption, he threatened to win the Valspar Championship but missed a slew of putts in the final round. When David Feherty joked about Els’s putting at the Tavistock Cup the next day, the normally easy-going Els was livid. The year’s first major went on without him.
No one expected Els had another British Open victory in him later that year, just as no one expected his 67 at Augusta National on Thursday, when Els took just 27 putts, tied for seventh best in the field. His only blemishes: He missed a short eagle try on 13 and three-putted for bogey on 18.
His 67 was three better than Mickelson, six better than Tiger, four better than Rory McIlroy. With 19 victories on Tour and 47 other titles around the world, and four majors on his resume, Els has little left to prove. He was both lucky (financially) and unlucky (competitively) to have played during Woods’s prime, but Els is already in the Hall of Fame.
And he has made his mark in other ways. After his son Ben was born with autism, he began to raise millions for awareness and education, and the $30 million Els Center for Excellence is scheduled to open in Jupiter, Fla., in August. Liezl, Ernie said, has been doing much of the heavy lifting of late, leaving Els to make one last push with the clubs. Sometimes he’ll slip up and talk about his Masters career in the past tense, a 21-year memory, but maybe, just maybe, Ernie Els has some history still to make at Augusta.