ORLANDO, Fla. — Ernie Els has been playing the Masters since 1994, and he has not gone away entirely empty.
He has 12 pairs of crystal goblets from making eagles during the tournament. He twice won a crystal vase for having the low score of the round. And he has two silver medals and silver trays from being the runner-up in 2000 and 2004.
What he doesn’t have is a green jacket.
And that’s why Els might not be going back — at least not this year.
The sentiment is that Augusta National should give a special invitation to the Big Easy, a giant in the game in so many ways. Beyond his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame last year, Els is the modern pioneer as a global golfer with 74 wins worldwide.
But the club is doing the right thing by not giving him one.
Els has no one to blame but himself for being in this predicament. Since last year’s Masters, he has only three finishes in the top 10 (including a playoff loss in South Africa in January) and he has missed the cut six times. He started the year at No. 56 in the world and had three months to crack the top 50.
That’s what made Innisbrook so excruciating to watch. Els made a spirited run up the leaderboard Sunday in the Transitions Championship and was poised to win, which would have given him an automatic invitation to drive down Magnolia Lane. With a one-shot lead, he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole. Needing to make par on the 18th hole to join the playoff, he tried to jam the 4-foot putt into the cup with his belly putter and pulled it badly.
Els showed a mixture of shock and anger during an awkward TV interview, yet it was a snapshot of why he’s such a popular figure. There is a raw honesty about Els that makes him real.
“I was so hot I found it difficult to even think straight,” Els said the next day on his website. “I’ve had a night to sleep on it, though. It still hurts the way I finished the tournament, but I know in my heart how well I played all week. I have to believe that if I keep doing what I’m doing, the results will reflect that and I’ll give myself plenty more opportunities to win.”
He needs one to get to the Masters.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational has a field strong enough that Els, who is No. 62 in the world, might be able to finish second alone and move into the top 50. This week is the cutoff for the top 50 in the world ranking to get Masters invitations.
Otherwise, his last chance will be to win the Houston Open.
One reason it looks as though the Masters should give Els an invitation — historically reserved for international players — is that it already gave one to 20-year-old Ryo Ishikawa of Japan.
This is the second time Ishikawa has received an invitation.
But this isn’t about comparing Els with Ishikawa, the kid whom Els took under his wing at the Presidents Cup in November. It’s more about Els being a PGA Tour player who had more opportunities to qualify and didn’t.
The Masters, which already has the most exclusive field of any major, runs the tournament the way it sees fit. In an era when international players had a hard time gaining access to the three American majors, it was Augusta National that invited them.
Now, the club is targeting growth in Asia, along with growth in its international TV revenue.
True, Ishikawa played in all four majors and three World Golf Championships last year. Six of them, however, are in American. For some reason, Japanese players have a hard time making the adjustment — culture, golf courses, travel — to the PGA Tour until they actually set up a base in America, as Shigeki Maruyama did.
The last non-Asian to receive a special invitation to the Masters was Greg Norman in 2002.
If that’s the proper comparison for Els, then it’s no contest.
Els is on the short list of players who have had their hearts ripped out by Augusta National over the years. For five straight years, he finished no worse than sixth and twice was runner-up. The most devastating was in 2004, when Els was on the putting green waiting for a playoff when the ground shook from roars of Phil Mickelson making an 18-foot birdie to win.
Els isn’t the only player to lose to a birdie on the 18th hole. Arnold Palmer did that to Ken Venturi in 1960. Mark O’Meara did it to David Duval in 1998. Tiger Woods did it to Chris DiMarco in a playoff in 2005.
Tom Weiskopf was a runner-up four times at the Masters. There were three second-place finishes for Johnny Miller, who like Els was a U.S. Open and British Open champion.
Norman was in a league of his own when it comes to players who don’t own a green jacket.
“Greg has provided our patrons with much excitement by his inspired and superior play during his 21 years at Augusta National,” former club chairman Hootie Johnson said when he gave Norman the invitation for the 2002 Masters.
Norman twice led after 54 holes, including his infamous six-shot lead he lost against Nick Faldo. Larry Mize chipped in on him from 140 feet in a playoff. He made a late charge and was poised for a playoff until hitting 4-iron over the green on the 18th hole and making bogey in 1986. That gave Nicklaus a sixth green jacket — Norman deserved an invitation for that reason alone.
Els might need an exemption to the U.S. Open one day. He should get one as a two-time champion.
But this is the Masters.
Els has never been closer than three shots of the lead going into the final round. He had only one close call, that brilliant duel with Mickelson on the back nine in 2004. Els has immense stature in the game, but not at the Masters.
You get the sense that no one will be rooting harder for him than Augusta National, but probably not enough to send him an invitation.
The club is big on tradition, not compassion.