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Els is not conceding anything to age

Friday, April 01, 2011

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Ernie Els has stowed away the white flag, refusing to surrender to age or the ghosts of Augusta National Golf Club.

Ernie Els was having serious doubts about ever returning to Augusta National Golf Club after posting scores of 73 and 75 in the middle rounds of last year's Masters. Els, who has twice been a Masters runner-up, came into the tournament playing well and opened with 71, only to stumble again. A closing 68 buoyed his spirits for a return to the Masters. (Corey Perrine/Staff)

"I have a game plan back again," he said. "I just need a bit of game again."

Last year, Els didn't sound like he planned on ever coming back to Augusta. The South African had endured enough trials and tribulations in 17 trips to the Masters that he appeared to have lost the desire to return.

His oft-repeated phrase after three disappointing rounds at Augusta National was, "It's killing me."

Despite showing up with two victories to his credit in March, Els let a closing double bogey after a solid first round derail his confidence. He reverted to the player who had missed three consecutive Augusta cuts, posting rounds of 73 and 75 the next two days. He then unloaded in a locker room interview.

"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. 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 -- (Tom) Weiskopf, (Greg) Norman, (Johnny) 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."

His instinct then was to take things less seriously in the future. He talked about just showing up the day before the Masters and playing only one practice round to prevent the annual obsessing over a major he so desperately wants to win and has come so tantalizingly close to winning on several occasions.

"There's not too many guys who know more about the course than I do. That includes the winners," he said. "I know everything about the golf course. So I'll just ease off, take my foot off the pedal and get myself mentally ready."

A Sunday 68 that tied him for 18th helped.

"I needed something to bring me back, and I think that might bring me back for next year," Els said. "I wasn't really in the mood to play this course ever again."

A year later he's in better spirits and just hoping to put it all together in time for another run at a green jacket.

"We will have to wait and see how I get there," he said. "I was just fortunate to make the cut last year. In my previous couple of tries, I really lost plot around Augusta. You need a bit of game going in there with a bit of momentum, and I'm looking forward to that."

Now 41, Els isn't ready to give up on his quest to add to his three major victories. Two months after the Masters, he came close to claiming another U.S. Open title, pulling into a tie for the lead in the final round at Pebble Beach before going 4-over on holes 9-11 to stumble to a third-place finish behind winner Graeme McDowell.

With the U.S. Open returning to Congressional, where he won in 1997, and the British at Royal St. George's, where he became the first person to shoot four rounds in the 60s at the Open in 1993, the major schedule sets up well for him.

"I definitely do feel like I've still got a major, maybe two, in me," he said. "I'm working towards that. I've got a great chance this year."

With this being the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus' 1986 win at Augusta at age 46, Els finds inspiration in a performance he watched unfold as a teenager in South Africa.

"To think at 46, winning a major, it gives you a lot of hope for us 40-somethings," Els said.

"He obviously showed it can be done. Many majors have been won in your 40s -- you talk about (Ben) Hogan and those type of players, Vijay (Singh), Mark O'Meara. There's many guys who have won majors. But to be the best and then for many years not to be the best, and then come out of the woodwork and show guys that, hey, I'm the best out here -- that was quite something. That was quite a statement (Nicklaus) made."

Els hopes to have a few statements left in him. He is not ready to surrender.

"Age, you're never going to beat it," he said. "I'm 41 now. I'll be 42 in October. Time's ticking away. Same for everybody, I guess, on the planet. But I really don't feel any ill effects, let's say, of age. I'm in pretty good shape and just trying to get better."

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

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