As Ernie Els played out what will probably be his last appearance in the Masters, his 23rd appearance at Augusta, you couldnt help but think that it is a tournament that has not delivered the joy for Els that he has delivered for the South African public. Sunday was no different as Els had to “enjoy” his final 18 holes at Augusta without many of his adoring fans following and without much of the partisan crowd. The World Golf Hall of Fame inductee, the most decorated South African in post Apartheid Era and South Africa’s favourite wine maker will always look back at his career and believe the green jacket was the one that got away!
Ernie made his debut at Augusta in 1994 with three top 10 finishes in his first five majors and finished in the Top 10 with closing score of -2 and a best round of 67 in the second that would have given him hope. It would take Ernie another six years of adventure before he really got close and started a period of utter dominance without winning! He was cut in 95, and finished in 12th, 17th, 16th and 27th through 1999.
In 2000 Ernie was ranked 12th going into the Masters and although he was seen as an outside bet, largely thanks to his two US Open victories, few would have truly considered Ernie to top off the tournament. On opening round 72 would have had few changing their bets, but a second round 67 put Ernie in a tie for second. In tough conditions Els shot a 74 that left him three off of Vijay Singh going into Sunday. Playing in the final pair, Els never closed the gap to less than three in a bogey free 68. Ernie finished second for the first time.
After 2000 produced three Runners Up finishes for Ernie at the Majors, many considered his chances at Augusta to be higher. Ernie started with an uninspired 71 to be well off the pace, but back-to-back 68’s saw him rocket up the leaderboard. A 72 on the last day was enough to see him hold onto a share of 6th place as Tiger Woods stormed away to win with 16 under.
2002 almost produced more of the same for the likeable South African. His opening round of 70 was his best so far (and would stay his best until 2015). He followed it up with a fantastic 67 to lie third behind Goosen and Vijay. Retief then moved top with a charging Tiger Woods while Ernie fell back to fourth in a tie with Sergio Garcia. A disappointing final round of 73, thanks largely to a triple bogey at 13, saw Els eventually settle for tie for fifth and his fourth top 10 finish at Augusta
Incredibly in 2003 Ernie started with a horrendous 79 with 7 bogeys and one double bogey saved by two late birdies. Els realistically was only hoping to try and make the cut on Friday when he shot an inspired bogey free 66, his lowest round ever at Augusta to sit in a tie for 10th! On Saturday he shot an even par 72 to halt the charge and although he shot a good 70 in difficult conditions he couldnt do much but watch as Mike Weir won his only major.
The closest Ernie would get to winning would be in 2004 when 70 and 72 saw him enter the weekend in 10th place, four shots adrift of Justin Rose. Saturday saw him shoot a 71 and close that gap to three, but still sit in a tie for fourth place. In one of the most exciting back nines in Masters history, Mickelson dueled Els to claim his first major championship. Mickelson shot a final round 69, sealed with an 18-foot (5 m) birdie on the 18th green to win by a stroke. Playing two groups ahead of Mickelson, Els started the day at −3 and posted a 67 (−5). As Mickelson approached the final hole, Els’ total of 280 (−8) appeared enough to at least get him into a playoff. It proved not to be sufficient and Mickelson broke hearts of all South Africans with his monster birdie to win it.
Ernie never got close again although he did roll back the clock in 2015 when an opening round 67 saw him lead the Major after the first round for the first time. Ernie always gave us hope as South Africans of a Masters challenge and it will be a lot worse off not having him there! Ernie you may not have won the green jacket, but you always made South Africa proud at Augusta. Thank you!