AKRON, Ohio - The majors over, Ernie Els went to Firestone with another chance to be No. 1 in the world.
He never broke par.
And he has rarely cared so little.
"It's a pity this week was this week," Els said after finishing the NEC Invitational at 13-over-par, his highest score over par in a non-major since the 1995 Tour Championship at blustery Southern Hills.
Els unleashed that easy smile, but it was clear the wounds were still fresh from a season of major heartache. Four times in contention. Three times with a putt on the 18th hole that could have changed everything.
A year ago, Els won four of his first five tournaments and looked unstoppable as the major championship season approached. Then he injured his wrist on a punching bag, lost his momentum and never came close to winning a major.
This time, he feels like the punching bag.
"I'm three shots away from winning three majors - this close," he said, pinching his thumb and index finger together.
Phil Mickelson was five shots away from the Grand Slam, but at least he can spend his off-season deciding what to serve his fellow Masters Tournament champions for dinner next April.
"A lot of people would love to have my year," Els said. "It's just the bloody results that hurt."
Els had one arm in the green jacket, making two eagles in the final round on his way to 67. He was on the practice green as Mickelson stood over an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the Masters. The thunderous cheer that followed is still ringing in Els' ears.
He picked himself up in time to get into the final group at the U.S. Open, two shots behind Retief Goosen. A double bogey on the first hole sent him to 80, his worst score ever in the major he has won twice.
Then came the British Open, where Els made a dynamic rally with birdies on the 16th and 17th at Royal Troon, followed by a 7-iron into 12 feet and a chance to win the claret jug. He had to be careful not to run the putt 6 feet by, left it a few inches short and never made another putt that mattered in a playoff loss to Todd Hamilton.
Still, he mustered up one last fight.
Els hit the purest shot at Whistling Straits, a 2-iron to within tap-in range for birdie on the 518-yard 15th hole - into the wind, no less - and followed with another birdie to give himself a chance. But his drive barely went through the fairway on the 18th, leaving him no shot at the flag. He wound up with a three-putt bogey from 80 feet, which ultimately left him one shot out of the playoff.
"I just want to forget about what happened," Els said. "I want to start fresh again."
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