By Helen Ross; from PGATOUR.com
He was paired with Ben Crenshaw in the second round and shot 67. The Texan, who would win his second Green Jacket the following year, came away impressed.
“He was so gracious, so nice, and said, ‘You know, you’re going to win this tournament if you keep putting like that,” Els recalled on Thursday. “So playing with him and putting the greens and watching him putt that day, I just had a ball.”
The big-hitting South African went on to finish eighth that year. He fully expected Crenshaw’s prediction to come true, as did just about anyone who followed golf at the time.
“But it didn’t quite happen,” Els said with a wry smile.
The World Golf Hall of Famer who is playing in his 21st Masters this week has never won that elusive Green Jacket.
Instead, Els became more closely identified with the U.S. Open. He won his first of two barely two months after making his Masters debut, beating Loren Roberts in sudden death after Colin Montgomerie bowed out in that hot, steamy 18-hole playoff at Oakmont.
Els has also won two Open Championships, the second coming three years ago at Royal Lytham & St. Annes at the age of 42.
Small wonder, then, the 67 Els shot in Thursday’s first round at Augusta National created a bit of a stir, even as Jordan Spieth was monopolizing the TV broadcast on the way to the lead at 64. Els had never broken 70 on opening day — not even during that stretch of five straight Masters where he never finished lower than sixth.
That impressive streak began and ended with runner-up finishes. The first came by three strokes in 2000 to Vijay Singh while the ultimate heartbreaker was four years later when Phil Mickelson rolled in an 18-footer on the 72nd hole to win his long-awaited first major, beating Els by one.
“I was really hoping for a playoff, and I was upset about that,” Els recalled. “I was happy for Phil in the same way, but I was really upset after that.”
Not coincidentally, as the South African now sees it, he has not finished higher than 13th in the last nine Masters.
“I was trying to wipe it under the carpet that I wanted this one so badly for so many years; definitely, there was something going on,” Els said. “Kind of, you get fed up with yourself. Never with Augusta, but yourself with the mistakes that you make. …
“So a little frustration set in there, yeah.”
This season has been characterized by frustration, as well. The World Golf Hall of Famer has played seven times and missed four cuts. A tie for 13th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which Els had won twice previously, is his best finish by 36 spots.
Even so, Els said he felt at “ease” when he got to Augusta National this week. He’s put a lighter shaft in his driver — “I’m getting on a little now,” the 45-year-old joked — he’s made a combined 41 birdies in his last two starts.
“So that means that when I’m on, I’m doing something well,” said Els, who had five birdies and an eagle on Thursday. “But I’ve had the odd bad hole here and there. So I’ve been trying to stay patient today and felt very comfortable on the greens.”
Truth be told, Els might also be more comfortable with himself. His wife Liezl and their two children were here earlier in the week, and 15-year-old Samantha caddied for her dad in the Par-3 Contest he used to avoid.
“There’s definitely a different kind of mind set in the whole family coming up here,” Els said. “It’s more of an enjoyment. We kind of are running out of time a little bit here, so we are really trying to enjoy what we’ve got left out here.
“You know, it’s been 21 years coming to Augusta, it’s been unbelievable, but nothing lasts forever. Samantha had a great time at the Par 3, and I just have a different appreciation I think for the place.”
And who knows? Els has already won one major since turning 40. Maybe he can get the third leg of the career Grand Slam come Sunday.
“Well, that’s the plan,” Els said, a big grin on his face. “So we’ll see what happens. … You know, these guys are good. I’ve got a lot of talent, but you’ve got to get the most out of it now, we’re running out of time.
“But I’ll be up for it.”