'Big Easy' Ernie Els content at likely his final Masters

AUGUSTA, Georgia (AP) Ernie Els is content knowing this is likely his final Masters, no matter how good he felt about his strong start at Augusta National on Thursday.

''The Big Easy,'' a four-time major champion, opened with an even-par 72 in the first round. He is seven shots behind leader Charley Hoffman and three back of William McGirt. No one else was more than two shots ahead of Els by late afternoon. Still, it didn't make the South African star misty about his time running out at Augusta.

''If you can't win it in 23 goes, maybe you should try something else,'' Els said with his trademark grin.

Els certainly picked the right profession.

He won the U.S. Open and British Open twice. His long, circular swing and accurate putting touch made him the favorite of many to land multiple green jackets. Instead, Els joins the list of near-miss standouts who never won the prize at the year's first major.

He was Masters runner-up to Vijay Singh in 2000, starting a stretch of five consecutive top-six finishes - a run that ended when in 2004 with Phil Mickelson's birdie on the 18th hole beat Els by a stroke. The loss left Els distraught.

''After the seventh beer, I felt a lot better,'' Els said a week later at the PGA Tour's Hilton Head stop.

Els never recovered his form at Augusta National after that. He has missed the cut five times since then and never again finished in the top 10. Els was humiliated a year ago when he made a nine on No. 1, six-putting that green on the way to an 80 - his highest score ever on a course he loves.

So Els felt some redemption when he hit a solid starting drive and made a routine par-4 on the first.

''I was really nervous on the tee so it was nice to get that one in and get going,'' Els said. ''But then I bogeyed (No.) 2.''

Els best run of the day came near the end of the round with four birdies on a five-hole stretch, including three straight on Nos. 15-17. A bogey on the closing hole moved him back down to even par on a day when all competitors dealt with strong wind gusts throughout the round.

''It's just making shots,'' Els said. ''I hit shots and I tried to hit them as good as I could. And the putts went in. If I didn't make the putts, I wouldn't be standing here.''

Mickelson, Els' longtime friend, called him one of greats who should've but did not win the Masters.

Els thanked Mickelson, then quipped, ''He's one of the guys that beat me down. It's his fault.''

Els would love to at long last slip on that jacket Sunday. At 47, though, he realizes his best opportunities are behind him.

''If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen,'' Els said. ''I've had a great time.''

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