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Being anointed the sentimental favourite in a sporting event is usually the result of hardship, misfortune, age or some combination thereof. When Ernie Els tees off on Thursday at Augusta National in the 14th Masters appearance of his career, he will probably find himself in the unfamiliar position of being the sentimental pick, and for all three reasons.
Els has come back from a debilitating injury, he has had some terrible luck in majors and, at the age of 37, he is fast approaching golf’s twilight zone. The Masters is the title that Els most covets and, should the South African be in contention come next weekend, fans in search of cosmic justice will surely be hoping he triumphs.
True, Els is hardly golf’s heartbreak kid. He is a former world number one with three majors – two US Opens and one British Open – and 59 other victories to his credit, not to mention $40m in career earnings. He has been ranked in the top 10 for more than a dozen years and has been in the top five for most of this period.
By any measure, he has enjoyed a glittering run and has managed to carve himself an impressive legacy despite playing alongside arguably the most dominant golfer in history, Tiger Woods.
Yet, there is a widespread conviction that the career of the man nicknamed the “Big Easy” has not quite reached the heights it should have.
The long-awaited, sustained challenge to Woods has never materialised. Els has a clutch of near-misses in majors, including a remarkable six second-place finishes. In 2000, he finished runner-up in three of the year’s four majors.
Few golfers have played so consistently well and so consistently fallen just short of glory.
Els has faltered in the late stages of several majors. But he has also suffered some bad breaks, none worse than what befell him during the 2004 Masters.
He turned in a brilliant final round that year, carding a five-under par 67. His play on the back nine was electric and included an eagle, his second of the day, a birdie and several impressive pars. It was a performance that should have won him the green jacket and on almost any other afternoon would have.
But 2004 was the year the golf gods decided to stop torturing the long-suffering Phil Mickelson, whose quest to capture a first major had made him the darling of the Augusta crowd. The overnight leader, Mickelson shot a 31 over the last nine holes, capped by an 18ft birdie putt on the 18th hole to beat Els by a stroke.
Els was on the practice green preparing for what he – and everyone else – had assumed would be a play-off when Mickelson sank the putt of his life. The look on Els’ face at that moment told the story: he had played Augusta as well as he could have played it and he had still fallen short.
It is not clear that he has ever fully recovered from the emotional toll of that loss. The British Open three months later only compounded his misery: Els lost in a play-off at Royal Troon to unheralded American Todd Hamilton after missing a 12ft putt to win the title on the 72nd hole.
In July 2005, while on a sailing holiday with his family, he ruptured a ligament in his knee, a grave injury that required reconstructive surgery and that sidelined him for four months. Recovering his famously graceful swing – the inspiration, along with his imposing height, for his nickname – took much longer, as he naturally shied away from putting weight on the damaged knee.
Although Els has regained form, he has not won a PGA event since 2004. The injury and the slow convalescence have underscored the fact that the clock has begun to tick down on his career.
Professional golfers, of course, follow very different trajectories than other athletes. Their careers tend to last much longer because there is less strain on their bodies and they generally do not peak until they are in their 30s.
Woods, like Jack Nicklaus before him, has been a precocious exception. He is only 31 and already has a dozen majors to his credit. Mickelson, though certainly precocious himself, was 33 when he won the Masters in 2004 and he then went on the best run of his career, capturing two more majors. That is the norm in golf.
It is also the case that 40 has traditionally been the past-the-prime mark, after which victories become noticeably scarcer. True, players over 40 have won majors – in 1986, Nicklaus won the Masters at the age of 46 and 43-year-old Raymond Floyd won the US Open that same year – but it has been a fairly rare occurrence.
Els is keenly aware that his fifth decade is nearly upon him. Noting that improved physical conditioning and better equipment have given today’s players greater longevity than their predecessors, he has pointed to his good friend Vijay Singh and his late-career success as an example that he hopes to emulate.
The 44-year-old Singh, possibly the hardest-working man in golf, has won 19 titles, including one major, the 2004 PGA, since turning 40, which is a tour record. His latest victory came at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida two weeks ago and he finished tied for 11th at last weekend’s WGC-CA Championship, also in Florida.
Needless to say, Singh arrives in Augusta with an excellent chance of adding a second green jacket to his wardrobe.
Els, at this point, would be content to own just one. He has suffered two consecutive disappointing Masters, finishing 47th in 2005 and 27th last year. He has played reasonably well in the lead-up to this year’s tournament, coming in 18th at the Arnold Palmer and tied for 11th at the WGC-CA. But a bit more momentum would have been helpful.
Els will have a lot to overcome at Augusta. There is Woods, of course, who won the WGC-CA and is determined to bag another major before being summoned to nappy duty, his wife being pregnant with the couple’s first child. And Els also has those unpleasant memories to surmount.
On the plus side, many of the fans will be cheering him with a fervour reserved for the sentimental choice, and that is no small advantage. Just ask Mickelson.
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