Originally created 04/15/04

Els tries to forget Mickelson, Masters



HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Ernie Els spent a tough evening Sunday reliving all the "what if" moments in his stirring second-place Masters Tournament finish to Phil Mickelson last week.

"After the seventh beer, though," said the Big Easy, laughing, "I felt a lot better."

You would have to drink heavily to forget that ending.

Els posted an unbelievable 67 in the final round - helped by eagles on the eighth and 13th holes - only to watch Phil Mickelson shoot a career-defining 31 on Augusta National Golf Club's back nine to win by a stroke.

"It was a good heavyweight fight, wasn't it?" Els said Wednesday. Certainly the best on the PGA Tour this year.

Els joked and grinned his way around Harbour Town Golf Links, where he will tee off today at the MCI Heritage.

Still, it was a bitter defeat at a tournament the South African star desperately craved. He returned to his home in Orlando, Fla., and went over every missed shot, botched putt, failed gamble or safe play he could have turned into something special. A couple of shots here or there and Els knew he would be the one celebrating instead of Mickelson.

"What if, what if, what if," he said, smiling. "There's so many."

What helped the recovery were several friends from South Africa at their first Masters, amazed by what they saw. Their good cheer, Els said, perked him up and sent him off to the MCI with a feeling of accomplishment rather than one of dread. He spent Monday and Tuesday around his family before coming to Hilton Head.

"You can't kill yourself over it," he said. "What's over and done is done."

Els has won two U.S. Opens and a British Open. However, he has rarely felt the intense excitement of his closing duel at the Masters.

"It's almost an out-of-body experience, feeling you can do whatever it takes to succeed," he said. "I could see that Phil was in the exact same frame of mind."

For the first time, Mickelson won at one of the game's major events. Mickelson put an 8-iron about 18 feet away on the 18th green, then made the birdie putt for victory. Els was on the putting green practicing for a playoff when he heard the thunderous roar that told him his day was done.

It was the fifth straight year Els finished sixth or better at Augusta National.

The crowd at Harbour Town treated Els like he had won the green jacket. They cheered and clicked cameras as he walked down fairways and up to greens.

"Good playing, Ernie," a woman called out after his opening pro-am tee shot. Els graciously turned, smiled and held the pose for a snapshot.

Davis Love III, a five-time MCI Heritage winner and defending champion, knows what Els is dealing with. In 1995, Love shot a final-round 66, then watched helplessly as his friend Ben Crenshaw made birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 to win the Masters.

"I had a feeling that (Els) might've won," Love said.

Love talked with Els briefly since Sunday.

"He feels like, 'Hey, I played great down the stretch. I felt like I won the golf tournament when I walked off 18th green and somebody just came in played better than me and beat me,' " Love said.

Els' luck at Harbour Town has been almost as star-crossed as at Augusta. He had three straight sub-70 rounds and with 12 holes left had a five-stroke lead before falling to champ Stewart Cink by that many in 2000.

Els was ahead again in the final round a year ago. But he drove out of bounds on the 16th hole for a double bogey, then followed with closing bogeys on the 17th and 18th holes to tie for 10th place.