Ernie Els: Exclusive InterviewMarch, 2013
Els is back at Augusta after missing out in 2012 - Mark Townsend listens to the Open champion's excitement
ERNIE ELS has been part of the Masters furniture since 1994. In the year that Jose Maria Olazabal emerged with a second Green Jacket, the then 24- year-old Els left with the first of six top-10 finishes and, just two months later, captured the first of two US Opens.
Ever since, Els has been one of the favourites to break his Masters duck. The closest he has come was nine years ago when two eagles and a last-round 67 looked to be enough for at least a play-off – only for Phil Mickelson, playing in his 47th Major, to produce a finish of five birdies in the closing seven holes to claim his first.
Fast forward to last year and the South African was gradually finding some form on the PGA Tour, posting a number of high finishes but not the win that would seal his place in the field for the year’s opening Major. An invitation was needed from the committee. It wasn’t forthcoming. A curious decision?
Well perhaps not that strange given that Els doesn’t fit into the club’s very obvious policy of using their invites to add more Asian players to the field. In any case, Els stated that if he were offered a special invitation he would turn it down.
It is not Els’ style to point fingers or attach blame, more to knuckle down and prove a point. On his website, the week before Augusta, he said: “It’s only the first week of April, and I have a long season ahead of me with lots of great tournaments to look forward to. And you know something, I genuinely feel like I can win any time I tee it up right now. That’s exciting.
“Missing this year is not going to change my life. It’s just one of those things. I’ll be back there next year.”
Indeed he will.
You played in 18 straight Masters, what did you do last year while it was on?
I wasn’t going to watch it, but then Louis [former member of the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation] got into contention so I switched it on and obviously I was pulling for him.
How touched were you with the lengths the media campaigned to try and get you an invite?
Yeah, it was nice that people were doing that. I was a bit sad that an 18-year streak had come to an end, but I had only myself to blame. I put myself in that position by not playing well the previous year. It’s just one of those things. I said at the time I’d be back in 2013 and I’m happy to say I will.
You have a bit of a curious record at Augusta – a mixture of top 5s and a few missed cuts. How would you sum it up?
It’s that kind of golf course. The margins are so small that if you’re even a little bit off your game, it will beat you up. Seriously, you don’t have to do that much wrong to be packing your bags on Friday night.
You must arrive at every Open Championship licking your lips, do you feel the same when arriving at Augusta?
No, not so much. There is no reason why I can’t win at Augusta but the Open is different. I’ve won a couple of Opens and had so many top 10s that I feel like I can win on a links course even if I’m not playing my best.
I love the story about Jose Maria Olazabal when he first came here. He said the turf was so perfect, he thinned his first few iron shots because he felt bad taking a divot! What do you remember of your first trip to Augusta, in 1994, where you were in contention after two rounds?
That first drive down Magnolia Lane, you never forget that. I’ve spoken to guys like Gary and Jack who have been coming here for over 50 years and they say the buzz never wears off. It always feels special. And the condition of the golf course really amazed me. I mean, you’ve heard all about it, but when you see it yourself that’s something else. I love the story about Jose Maria Olazabal when he first came here. He said the turf was so perfect, he thinned his first few iron shots because he felt bad taking a divot!
You had already contended in the Open and US Open by that point but is there a different kind of pressure at Augusta?
Yeah, Augusta feels like no other golf tournament, so in that sense you could say the pressure is different. Also we play here every year, so there are certain holes where there is a lot of history in the air, if you get my meaning. But a Major is a Major. It’s the same deal. You get that buzz when you arrive and then you want to be in the mix on Sunday.
You have seen a lot of course changes and lengthening, how fair/good is it these days?
I’d say it’s one of the toughest courses we play and, as I said before, the margins are so small between a great shot and a shot that puts you in a tricky spot. That’s the challenge here. You really have to play it smart; sometimes play away from pins. You have to pick your moments to be aggressive, more so here than any other course we play all year.
You have a big interest in course design. If you were in charge of Augusta for a day what would you change?
I’m not sure I’d change anything. Augusta is Augusta. Obviously it’s a different golf course to the one I first played 20 years ago, but as a designer and a competitor I can appreciate why they’ve made changes. Overall I’d say the committee does an incredible job with this tournament. Things are done at Augusta, which are like no other event and I think it’s fair to say they’ve almost led the way in terms of how the players are looked after. Even little things, like the fact only players and caddies are allowed inside the ropes. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. It makes a huge difference for us, especially during practice rounds. The golf course becomes our sanctuary.
Going back to 2004, it was a bit like the Open at Lytham in the sense that you had no sway on the result. What were you thinking when you finished your round – did you feel like -8 was enough?
Well, you never know. I played a great back nine that day. Actually, that was and still is the best round of golf I’ve played at Augusta; it just wasn’t quite enough to win. I don’t want to over-simplify it, but that’s golf. You’re going to have more disappointments than victories.
Did you watch Mickelson play the 18th or just go by the crowd noise?
I was hitting a few putts, so I was ready if there was a playoff. Yeah, I heard the roar on 18. I knew what Phil had done straightaway.
How do you try and not get ahead of yourself at the start of the week?
That’s something that comes with experience. It’s all about finding a routine that works for you, doing enough to feel like you’re ready to go on Thursday, not doing too much or too little. Personally, I like to keep things as normal as possible, go about my business at the course and then relax and eat with the family in the evening. You’ve got to know how to switch off.
Click the links below to read the eight Themes of the 2013 Masters:
Read our Masters interviews with Sandy Lyle and Billy Foster.
The Masters 2013: Preview