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Els sees hopes of win slipping away

Veteran laments years of Masters struggles

Sunday, April 11, 2010

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Ernie Els spoke like a broken man as he leaned on the door to the locker room.

Ernie Els reacts to a missed putt on No. 5. He parred the hole, but would make double bogey on No. 6, headed for a 75. "I'll play tomorrow and try to break par and not break a club," he said. (Jackie Ricciardi/Staff)

"I tell you, it's killing me," he said more than once.

It is the Masters Tournament, and the South African's desperate quest to win it has left another emotional scar in 2010.

One hour after a third-round 75 was in the books, Els' mind was still fretting about the place where his latest Masters bid derailed 36 holes before on Thursday.

"That first-day double bogey on 18," said Els, shaking his head. "I played beautifully ... but to finish like that. It all started going down to script until the 18th hole Thursday.

"I need to get over things like that but even (Friday) I was still thinking about it. ... I knew I needed to shoot four rounds in the 60s and then I double-bogeyed 18 downwind and it kind of killed me."

Els has been dying small deaths at Augusta National for 17 years. Long before the three consecutive missed cuts leading into this rebound year.

Before the dagger Phil Mickelson delivered on the 72nd hole in 2004 when Els was waiting for a playoff on the putting green. Before 2000, when Vijay Singh held off his Sunday charge.

Augusta National Golf Club has been teasing and torturing the South African as far back as 1995, when he missed the cut the year after winning his first U.S. Open and was seen leaving the clubhouse with his shoe bag in hand and tears rolling down his cheeks.

It has developed into a love/hate relationship that Els now deems unhealthy.

"You put so much in and it's almost like you're playing and you're waiting for the fall," he said.

"Somewhere down the line something is going to happen that's not good. I've had too many of those experiences. It's one of those tournaments. At least other majors we play different venues. So you're not going to go back to the same holes, and go, 'Oh ... two years ago I did this there.' That's the thing. You keep going nicely, nicely ... manage your game well and then you miss one shot and then miss the next one. That's what I've been doing."

With the wounds of another missed Masters opportunity still smarting, Els spoke like a man resigned to ill fate in his lifelong quest for a green jacket.

"If it's not going to happen, it's not going to happen," he said. "What can you do? I'm just beating my head against the wall every time. I've had a good attitude, and the game was there (this year). Everything was there. We just don't gel.

"It's done it to a bunch of people, and I'm probably one of them. 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. I'm serious. I'm killing myself and I don't want to do it anymore."

To that end, Els is thinking about a complete overhaul in his Masters strategy. He intends to adopt a minimalist game plan when he returns in 2011 at age 41.

"You prepare and prepare and think about it and it's killing me," he said. "I think next year I'll just fly in on Wednesday, leave the family at home, play 18 holes and then the golf tournament. What must be, must be. Doing it 17 years and walking around and looking around ... it's crazy.

"I've had a solid year, and I've just got to have a different attitude and I'm going to do that next year. Just play it and not worry about it so much.

"There's not too many guys who know more about the course than I do. That includes the winners.

"Obviously, when you win you see the lines a little differently and see balls going in the hole. But I know everything about the golf course. So I'll just ease off, take my foot off the pedal and get myself mentally ready."

Els still has 18 more holes to contend with before he can move on. He is 15 shots off the lead at 3-over par, tied for 31st on a week he entered as one of the most prominent favorites after back-to-back wins in March at Doral and Bay Hill.

"I'll play tomorrow and try to break par and not break a club," he said.

He'll then leave Augusta and spend a few weeks clearing it from his mind to continue what has been his best season in years with major venues coming up that count among his favorites.

"I want to have a good year," he said.

"I've had a great start and I could win four, five or six tournaments this year, and that's what I'm looking forward to."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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