Ernie rejuvenated for Masters
Augusta - Missing last year's Masters proved to be a blessing in disguise for Ernie Els and the South African is heading back to Augusta National next week with all the enthusiasm of a rookie.
For the first time since 1994, Els was unable to secure an invitation to the first major of the year after slipping down the rankings and failing to meet any of the other qualifying criteria.
But rather than dwell on his omission, the former world No 1 used it as a source to motivation. Three months later, he won the British Open for a second time, snapping a decade long drought in the majors and earning an automatic five-year exemption to the Masters.
"Maybe last year was a good thing," Els, 43, told a news conference. "I was playing good golf, but when I didn't get in, I was actually glad I didn't.
"Hopefully I'll go there with some game and have a good event. It's always exciting to go there."
Although he was absent last year, Els has been back to Augusta National since his last competitive appearance in 2011. He and Australia's Adam Scott, who Els beat by a stroke at the British Open, flew there together last month to play a practice round in preparation for the April 11-14 tournament.
Despite winning four majors and being among the game's elite for nearly two decades, the Masters has eluded Els, although he has come close.
The Big Easy, as he is affectionately known because of his smooth swing, has had six top-10 finishes, including five in a row between 2000 and 2004, and twice finished second.
He was runner-up to Vijay Singh in 2000, but his most agonising result was in 2004 when he finished a stroke behind American Phil Mickelson, who sank an 18-foot birdie putt at the last to secure the title.
Els led by two strokes with five holes to play, closing with a five-under 67 for an eight-under total of 280 but his hopes of getting the coveted green jacket were dashed when Mickelson birdied two of the last three holes.
"We are not quite done yet, we will see where it goes," he said. "It does give you something to look forward to and put some goals up there.
"I'm running out of time and if I have my game in shape at the right venue I think I can really perform. (I'd) like to squeeze out a couple more before we're done."
Els's turnaround in the past 12 months has coincided with his decision to start using a belly putter although he has dismissed the significance of it, saying he played successfully for years with a traditional putter.
Els plans to revert to his original club following a proposal to ban long putters from 2016 but will use a belly putter one last time at the Masters to demonstrate his belief that players should be able to use whatever putters they like.
"When I won The Open Championship, I was 71st in putting. I made a great putt on 18 which I'll remember for the rest of my life but I was still 71st in putting," he said.
"I've seen the work that goes in with getting comfortable with long putters, and obviously I've won a lot more tournaments with the short putter.
"So I have to support the guys using the long putters, because I've seen the work that goes in there, and I can't find any specific reason for anybody to ban the putter."