AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Munching on an apple, working on his
putting for a playoff that would never come, Ernie Els watched
helplessly as the Masters moment he’s dreamed of
disappeared.

While Phil Mickelson celebrated victory with his family, Els
gave his putter a dejected flip and walked away, an aching void in
his heart that only a win at Augusta National will fill.

“It’s very tough for me to explain how I feel right
now,” a somber Els said last night, after missed birdie putts
on the 17th and 18th holes left him one stroke behind
Mickelson.

“I just said to my wife and my dad, ‘I gave it my
absolute best, especially today.’ I’m very disappointed
now, but I’ll get over this. I feel like I’ll win a
major this year.

“I would have loved to have won this one.”

The 34-year-old is one of the best players of his generation,
already a three-time major winner.

But the Masters has always held a special place for him. He used
to stay up deep into the night half a world away to watch it with
his father, and he’s dreamed of winning it since he was
eight, when fellow South African Gary Player put on the green
jacket.

He had felt all week that this was finally his year, and it
seemed as if he might be right after making two eagles in a closing
5-under-par 67, his best round of the week.

But just like in 2000, when he finished second to Vijay Singh
after squandering birdie chances on his final three holes, it
wasn’t meant to be.

The pain would be the same, regardless. But adding to the agony
was the 20 minutes he had to wait between his finish and
Mickelson’s approach to the 18th green. Els couldn’t
bear to watch, knowing there was absolutely nothing he could
do.

“You’ve done what you’ve done. I played as
good as I could. You’re just …” He paused, trying to
find the right words. “You’re there in another
guy’s hands.”

And after falling spectacularly short so many times, Mickelson
finally broke through. He drained an 18-footer for birdie to win
his first major, setting off a raucous celebration on the green as
Els quietly slipped away.

“I’ll have another shot,” he said.
“I’m sure of it.”

But he will wonder about these missed opportunities.

Beginning the day three strokes behind Mickelson and Chris
DiMarco, Els’ game was sputtering until an eagle on the par-5
No. 8 gave him the lead.

His second shot hit a ridge on the left side of the green and
trickled down to settle five feet from the hole.

He had to scramble to save par when his second shot on No. 9
went six rows into the gallery behind the green, but he made it
look easy with a chip shot a few feet below the pin.

He moved to 7-under — two strokes ahead of Mickelson
— with another eagle on the par-5 13th, knocking the ball to
12 feet from 206 yards out. He followed with a gutsy save on 14
after driving into the trees.

Then came what might have been the defining two holes in the
tournament, had he won.

On a slope behind the 15th green, Els chipped within one foot,
tapping in for a birdie that put him at 8-under.

At 16, he left himself 45 feet on a huge-breaking, right-to-left
downhiller. He ran the first putt 10 feet past but made the
comebacker to save par.

“I was trying to push,” he said. “I was
hitting the ball very solid. I was feeling so good out there, I
felt I could have birdied every hole the way I was
playing.”

But he didn’t. He two-putted from 17 feet on the par-4
17th, then missed a 25-footer by eight inches on 18. As the ball
skittered past the hole, a grim look crossed his face.

“I’m going to look myself in the mirror tonight and
say, ‘Well done,’ ” Els said. “It’s
one of those things. That’s golf. I’ve had some good
wins and I’ve had some tough losses, and this is one of the
tough losses.”

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