Big Easy's style illuminates tortuous struggle

It was a day when Ernie Els fell out of the company of the Fabulous Four, at least it seemed for the duration of this 69th Masters, as he fought to beat the cut - by one stroke - and they bunched like assassins in the the long but maybe fragile footsteps of the runaway leader, Chris DiMarco.

It was a day when Ernie Els fell out of the company of the Fabulous Four, at least it seemed for the duration of this 69th Masters, as he fought to beat the cut - by one stroke - and they bunched like assassins in the the long but maybe fragile footsteps of the runaway leader, Chris DiMarco.

But then it was also a time touching golfing eternity - and that had nothing to do with the pecking order of today.

The passing agony of Els - he would no doubt be the first to concede - had to give way to Jack Nicklaus's announcement that, finally, he was going fishing. He played his last hole here yesterday, the ninth, came within an inch or two of a birdie, and then waved his last goodbye from inside the ropes of a course he had made his own.

"I'm not sure what the word proper really means," he said, "but I did want to say goodbye properly, and this year I decided I was going to hit my two favourite places, Augusta and St Andrews... I think I managed to do it here with rounds of 77 and 76, but I knew it was time to go. Playing this course with a bunch of fairway woods is not the way I really want to operate."

And then the great man was gone. Amid the turmoil behind was the travail of Els.

His swing once again might have been created by Michelangelo, but, of course, the Italian genius once smashed his chisel into one of his creations and demanded that it spoke to him. Will Els ever weigh his own talent and its end result and make a similar gesture of passion and frustration?

If it was going to happen it would surely have been here in Augusta - perhaps a year ago when, after playing the with daunting control and technique on the last day, he stood alone and chewed an apple and waited beside the practice green to see if Phil Mickelson, the man who some said was one of the game's ultimate chokers, could hold his nerve sufficiently to force a play-off.

Instead, in a passage of golf history written across the heart of Els, Mickelson won and became an instant American hero. Els had shot a perfect last-day 67 for nothing more than the pain of a fifth straight, narrow defeat.

"Yes, that was one of the hardest things I ever experienced," he recalled this week. "I just had to get out of town. It was just painful to be around." Emboldened by such a confession, it was deemed reasonable to ask if now he came here with a sense of hurt, of a denial of his rights - or, if you wanted to put it at its most basic, did this piece of Georgia owe him something?

"No, Augusta doesn't owe me anything, but something deep down inside me might say yes and no to that question. Yes, I think I have played well enough here to win something, but then in the end you always have to turn it on yourself. You have to say, well, I did my best and for one reason or another it didn't happen. What is the answer? It's to keep playing as well as you can... If you believe in yourself enough, you have to think that one day it is going to happen."

But then yesterday Augusta seemed to be turning away from him once again, wiping out the sense of a man picking up his feet to join the rivals in whose company he was supposed to dominate this tournament: Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Mickelson. Here again we had the desperate suspicion of a perfect game hauntingly flawed. But by what? A certain failure of imagination or desire? No, he tells you, he knows how to hurt.

Might he yet just force himself into the most serious action? Before going out, he said that his confidence had not been battered by defeat last spring, and the play-off defeat by Todd Hamilton in the Open. "I have won my majors and I expect to win some more," Els said. "You come to Augusta with excitement - not weighed down by things that have gone wrong. Losing is not the worst thing if you believe you have played well, if you haven't neglected anything in your preparation."

Of course, if you make what you do look like something that wells from your nature so easily you might be opening a newspaper, expectations tend to run high and relentlessly so. If watching Els gives you a sense that all is right with the world, that there is a way to go through the most demanding challenges of life as if you are taking a stroll down a country lane, there perhaps should be a requirement to look a little deeper.

One original theory is that in a way Els did put his name on two majors last year - when he played with his countryman Retief Goosen in the final round of the US Open and then partnered Hamilton, another winner, in the last 36 holes of the Open.

The fancy was that Els was such a calming influence on both men, the rhythm of his game so soothing and persuasive, that their own inhibitions fell away. They had fallen under the spell of Big Easy.

It is an intriguing idea, but not one to put to him yesterday as he wrestled with the question that he acknowledges readily enough. There is certainly a debt to be paid here at Augusta when the form and the results of Ernie Els are considered, but then who meets it: a grudging course or perhaps the finest stylist golf has ever seen? It is something that, poignantly, may not be settled for some time. If ever.

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