Augusta - 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 US Open and Open Championship twice. His long, circular swing and accurate putting touch made him the favourite 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 realises his best opportunities are behind him.
"If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," Els said. "I've had a great time."
Scores after Thursday's opening round of the 81st Masters at par-72 Augusta National Golf Club:
65 - Charley Hoffman (USA) 34-31
69 - William McGirt (USA) 35-34
70 - Lee Westwood (ENG) 39-31
71 - Russell Henley (USA) 35-36, Kevin Chappell (USA) 35-36, Andy Sullivan (ENG) 35-36, Matthew Fitzpatrick (ENG) 35-36, Phil Mickelson (USA) 35-36, Justin Rose (ENG) 34-37, Jason Dufner (USA) 35-36, Sergio Garcia (ESP) 35-36
72 - Soren Kjeldsen (DEN) 36-36, Thomas Pieters (BEL) 32-40, Paul Casey (ENG) 36-36, Ernie Els (RSA) 39-33, Matt Kuchar (USA) 39-33, Shane Lowry (IRL) 35-37, Rory McIlroy (NIR) 39-33
73 - Scott Piercy (USA) 34-39, Fred Couples (USA) 36-37, Rickie Fowler (USA) 34-39, Danny Willett (ENG) 38-35, Jon Rahm (ESP) 35-38, Marc Leishman (AUS) 35-38, Justin Thomas (USA) 37-36
74 - Daniel Summerhays (USA) 38-36, Brendan Steele (USA) 37-37, Larry Mize (USA) 38-36, Stewart Hagestad (USA) 37-37, Kevin Kisner (USA) 37-37, Brooks Koepka (USA) 35-39, Jason Day (AUS) 37-37, Rod Pampling (AUS) 36-38, Pat Perez (USA) 39-35, Ryan Moore (USA) 36-38, Charl Schwartzel (RSA) 40-34, Chris Wood (ENG) 36-38, Yuta Ikeda (JPN) 38-36, Alex Noren (SWE) 39-35, Bubba Watson (USA) 38-36
75 - Billy Hurley (USA) 36-39, Adam Hadwin (CAN) 38-37, Gary Woodland (USA) 38-37, Adam Scott (AUS) 37-38, Jordan Spieth (USA) 36-39, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (ESP) 39-36, Kim Si-Woo (KOR) 37-38, Brandt Snedeker (USA) 37-38, James Hahn (USA) 35-40, Webb Simpson (USA) 35-40, Steve Stricker (USA) 38-37, Bernhard Langer (GER) 36-39, Bill Haas (USA) 35-40
76 - Mike Weir (CAN) 39-37, Sean O'Hair (USA) 36-40, Kevin Na (USA) 39-37, Russell Knox (SCO) 36-40, Hideki Matsuyama (JPN) 39-37, Branden Grace (RSA) 41-35, Ian Woosnam (WAL) 37-39, Ross Fisher (ENG) 36-40, An Byeong-Hun (KOR) 37-39, Patrick Reed (USA) 38-38, Hideto Tanihara (JPN) 38-38, Jimmy Walker (USA) 39-37
77 - Brian Stuard (USA) 39-38, Sandy Lyle (SCO) 36-41, Zach Johnson (USA) 39-38, Louis Oosthuizen (RSA) 38-39, Daniel Berger (USA) 36-41, Hudson Swafford (USA) 38-39, Jose Maria Olazabal (ESP) 37-40, Bernd Wiesberger (AUT) 38-39, Henrik Stenson (SWE) 40-37
78 - Jhonattan Vegas (VEN) 38-40, Jim Furyk (USA) 40-38, Tommy Fleetwood (ENG) 37-41, J.B. Holmes (USA) 36-42, Francesco Molinari (ITA) 39-39, Wang Jeung-Hun (KOR) 37-41, Martin Kaymer (GER) 36-42, Mark O'Meara (USA) 38-40, Brad Dalke (USA) 39-39, Curtis Luck (AUS) 38-40, Vijay Singh (FIJ) 39-39
79 - Trevor Immelman (RSA) 40-39, Roberto Castro (USA) 38-41, Emiliano Grillo (ARG) 40-39, Angel Cabrera (ARG) 38-41, Mackenzie Hughes (CAN) 39-40
80 - Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 40-40
81 - Toto Gana (CHI) 42-39
82 - Scott Gregory (ENG) 41-41
WD - Dustin Johnson (USA)