AUGUSTA, Ga. — Ernie Els’s five-year exemption into the Masters field after winning the 2012 British Open runs out after this week, and the lanky South African known as The Big Easy may well have played his final competitive round in the tournament Sunday.
He did it as the first man to tee off in the fourth round, paired with non-competing marker Jeff Knox, an Augusta National member who filled the same role Saturday accompanying Australian Jason Day in the third round.
Els, now 47 and a runner-up in this tournament in 2000 and 2004, played in his 23rd Masters this week and came into the final round at 14-over-par 230, the highest score in the field. He missed the cut in two of his previous three appearances and has said several times this week he’d like to play here again, but “if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”
Els came in with a 78 on Sunday, five shots better than his 83 on Saturday, the worst round of his life at this venue, and finished last in the remaining field at 20-over 308, also his worst score here. Still, he insisted, playing four rounds “was the positive. It was a good weekend, beautiful weather and nice to play four rounds. The negative is just that my play was atrocious, and that’s kind of hard to take.”
Els struggled right from the start of the 2017 season. He has played nine events, with his best finish a tie for 65th. He came into the Masters having missed the cut in his past seven tournaments, with only two rounds in the 60s all year. Still, he wouldn’t mind coming back to Augusta National again, but he will have to win again on the PGA Tour to do so.
“Yeah, I would like one more,” he said. “I’ve had a great time here. The members, the people have been so kind to us. And as I say, if you can’t win in 23 tries, maybe you should try something else. I’ve had 23 goes. That’s enough.”
Els is a four-time major champion, including the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional in Bethesda. Earlier in the week, Phil Mickelson, who beat him for the 2004 Masters title, mentioned Els as one of the game’s all-time greats who never won at Augusta National.
“I had heard about that,” Els said. “Phil’s a friend of mine and obviously one of the guys who beat me down. It was really the start of his great run, and it was almost like my run came to an end when his started. One guy’s ecstasy is another guy’s, whatever you call it. Agony.”
As for never winning a Masters, he said, “I’ve won a lot of events around the world, but this one just eluded me, and that’s fine. There’s still obviously a chance [to play here again]. I’m still trying to win a tour event to get to 20, and I’m 48 this year, so if I get back, great. It’s not totally out of the picture.”
Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, has had quite a record in the Masters since he turned 50, an age when most players are simply happy to make the cut. Couples has easily done that in six of his past seven appearances since he hit the half-century mark. It’s the next two rounds that have usually done him in, and this year was no exception.
Now 57, Couples has been in the top 10 through the first two rounds in six of those seven appearances, including this year, when he was 1 under going into the weekend.
On Saturday, Couples posted a 2-over 74 and slipped out of the top 10 into a tie for 17th. He was actually threatening to stay among the leaders until a double bogey at the 530-yard 15th ended that chance. Couples has had one top-10 finish since turning 50, when he ended up sixth in 2010.
“I feel like my age is still okay, because I can drive it far enough,” Couples said after he posted a 2-under 70 in the first round. “I’m not long like I used to be on this kind of course, but it still plays where I can reach a lot of these greens with shorter clubs to make the ball stop around the hole. I like to think that I’ve had a lot of good finishes here, and my goal is to keep fighting with these guys.”
Journeyman William McGirt, who came into the weekend only two shots off the lead, faltered Saturday with a 2-over 74 and knew exactly what happened.
“The first two days, I was dead calm,” said the 37-year-old Masters rookie. “I told [my caddie] Brandon [Adams] it was scary how calm I was. [On Saturday], I was amped up, I got a little quick, had a death grip on that driver at the first hole. Then it was just bad swings on 17 and 18 off the tee. I just didn’t have anything.”
McGirt bogeyed his final two holes and was tied for 11th going into the last 18 holes. He also was well aware that he had to finish in the top 12 to qualify for next year’s tournament. Still, no matter what happened, he’s had a high old time all week,
“It’s just fun,” he said. “There are so many friends and family here, so many people I know from Spartanburg [S.C.] and from all around Carolina. I’ve heard ‘Go Wofford! Go Terriers!’ so many times. It’s awesome. It’s huge for our school and huge for our community. It’s huge for where I grew up.”
Stewart Hagestad, the leading amateur in the field by four shots going into the final round, has no plans to turn pro and will play in a number of amateur events this summer trying to make the American Walker Cup team.
A 25-year-old graduate of the University of Southern California and the first Mid-Amateur champion to make the cut in 28 years, Hagestad left his job as a financial analyst in New York earlier this year to pursue his amateur aspirations. After the annual Amateur Dinner on Monday night, he stayed overnight in the famous Crow’s Nest above the Augusta National clubhouse with the other four amateurs in the field. “I get goosebumps just talking about it,” he said.
“The whole dinner experience is in honor of Bobby Jones and Augusta National’s respect for amateur golf,” he said. “To be up there and have the same experience that so many great amateurs before me have had, it’s a special tradition, a special honor.”
Hagestad came into the final round tied for 22nd and a lot less jittery than when he arrived earlier in the week.
“The most nervous I’ve ever been on a golf course was the two practice rounds,” he said. “My nerves have gotten a lot better ever since. I’ve slowly but surely adjusted.”
The toughest hole on the course through the first 54 holes this week was the 445-yard No. 1, with a stroke average of 4.544, with only nine birdies recorded all week, along with 89 bogeys, 14 doubles and seven more at triple or worse.
The easiest was the 510-yard 13th, a par 5 usually reachable in two shots that averaged 4.657 strokes, with three eagles and 99 birdies. The Round 3 scoring average was 72.4 strokes, and the 54-hole average was 74.335.