The greatest South African major champion will take his honorary place on Augusta National’s first tee with his Big Three mates.
The newest South African superstar will be serving braai to his fellow Masters Tournament champions.
What’s currently missing for the 76th Masters is the bridge between Gary Player and Charl Schwartzel – Ernie Els.
For the first time since 1994 when he finished eighth as a Masters rookie two months before claiming the first of three major titles at the U.S. Open, Els isn’t yet qualified to participate in the Masters. After 18 seasons of being one of the most endearing figures at Augusta, tournament officials haven’t seemed inclined to throw the Big Easy a lifeline with a special exemption.
“The deal is you’ve got to qualify for the Masters – all the players know that,” said Els, who was within two pars of doing just that last Sunday at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course before yipping a short putt on the final hole to miss out on a playoff. “I’m not even sure what the criteria is for getting an invite. I don’t want to get involved there. If I get one, good. If I don’t, it’s fine. It’s one of those things. I know that I’m not qualified and that’s it.”
Els could climb from 62nd into the top 50 with a second- or solo third-place finish this week at Bay Hill (unless Augustan Charles Howell finishes second or better or Matteo Manassero wins in Morocco). He started today’s final round tied for third, three behind leader Tiger Woods.
But since Els isn’t lobbying for any favors, it falls to others to plead his case if necessary. And the simplest argument is that the 2012 Masters without Ernie Els isn’t the same as one with him chasing the dream that has sometimes cruelly eluded him.
At 42, Els remains one of the game’s modern giants. November marked the first time in 20 years that he slipped out of the top 50. (He ranked 40th at the end of 1992, but that was before the Masters began inviting top-50 players so he wasn’t qualified to play in 1993.)
He’s one of only three active full-time players on the PGA Tour to be elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame (the others are Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, each of whom he’s finished runner-up to at Augusta). His worldwide popularity is universal. He remains a frequent contender even while he becomes more of a global advocate for autism research in the wake of his son’s diagnosis several years ago.
Els is also one of those rare players who cannot conceal his heart. The scars that have built up over his 18 attempts at Augusta National have taken a toll. Five consecutive years he finished no worse than sixth, including bookend runner-ups in 2000 and ’04 that left him gutted.
“I tell you, it’s killing me,” he said in 2010 after he faltered despite high hopes from consecutive wins on the Florida swing coming into the Masters.
The Masters has utilized its international exemptions exclusively for Asian players in the last decade. It’s a stated goal of the club to grow golf in that region. This year a second career exemption has already been offered to 20-year-old Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa, a hugely popular player in a major television market for one of Augusta’s biggest international rights holders. Currently ranked 50th, Ishikawa might still qualify on his own.
The last non-Asian player to receive an international exemption was Greg Norman in 2002. That is the precedent that offers a glimmer of hope for Els. Norman was 47 years old and barely a full-time tour player at the time, ranked 130th in the world and fading. It was the second time the Australian required a special exemption to play the Masters, the first in 1992.
Els has a similar career resume, though he’s never needed any help reaching Augusta before. Each won more than 50 worldwide tournaments, with Els (3) holding one more major title and Norman (20) two additional PGA Tour wins. Both were frequent heartbreak victims at Augusta.
Unlike Norman, Els’ nearest misses at Augusta weren’t self-inflicted. In 2000, he shot a bogey-free 68 on Sunday but couldn’t catch Singh. In 2004, he birdied four of the last 12 holes and was waiting on the putting green for a playoff when he was engulfed in the roars set off by Mickelson’s winning birdie.
Those daggers and other missed chances have left marks.
“It’s done it to a bunch of people, and I’m probably one of them,” Els once said of his tortured history in the major he covets most. “I mean, go down the list – Weiskopf, Norman, Miller and many, many others. It’ll be something that’s a huge void in my career, but if I’m not going to do it I’m not going to do it. I can’t worry about this ... anymore.”
Unlike Norman in 2002, Els is still a legitimate contender. He finished fourth in a fall series event in October. He lost a playoff in South Africa in January. He ran over world No. 1 and defending champion Luke Donald in the first round of the WGC Match Play in February. He tied for 21st at PGA National this month and was within two pars of winning last week before nerves delivered a pair of agonizing bogeys instead to miss the playoff by a shot. He’s in the hunt again at Bay Hill, chasing major winners Woods and McDowell.
“I’m right there,” he said. “I’ve been through the mill for the last 18 months in this game. And just to feel like it’s coming around is really a gratifying feeling.”
It is that form Els seeks more than a Masters invitation.
“I’m not thinking about it as much,” he said of Augusta. “I’m thinking about getting my game back. My game’s coming around and I’m excited about that whether I make Augusta now or not. It’s one of those things. I’ve been there many times. It wouldn’t be great if I miss it, but it’s not life or death.”
It would be great for the tournament without costing it anything by giving Els a richly deserved pass. Currently, 95 players are already booked to play at the Masters. As it stands now, only Paul Lawrie (45) and Ben Crane (48) are poised to grab top-50 exemptions at the conclusion of Bay Hill. A victory in Houston next week is the only other avenue to qualify.
Inviting Els would likely make at most 99 participants – pushing the Masters committee’s field tolerance. But whether there are 97 or 99, that still means 33 groups will be playing the first two rounds. Adding Els would only reduce the number of twosomes necessary.
Nobody would complain to see Els here in April. He will be sorely missed if he’s not.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219