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A year of what could have been for Ernie Els

The majors over, Ernie Els went to Firestone Country Club with another chance to be No. 1 in the world.

He never broke par. And he has rarely cared so little.

``It's a pity this week was this week,'' Els said after finishing last weekend's NEC Invitational at 13-over, his highest score over par in a non-major since the 1995 Tour Championship at blustery Southern Hills.

``If it was a week later,'' he added, ``maybe I could have played golf.''

Els unleashed that easy smile, but it was clear the wounds were still fresh from a season of major heartache. Four times in contention. Three times with a putt on the 18th hole that could have changed everything.

No majors.

One look at his score last week and it was painfully obvious that he would rather have been anywhere else than a $7 million World Golf Championship. Someone suggested he was at Firestone in body, but not in spirit.

``Barely in body,'' Els replied. ``I felt pretty bad.''

A year ago, Els won four of his first five tournaments and the South African looked unstoppable as the major championship season approached. Then he injured his wrist on a punching bag, lost his momentum and never came close to winning a major.

This time, he feels like the punching bag.

``I'm three shots away from winning three majors -- this close,'' he said, pinching his thumb and index finger together. ``This year, the hammer has been on my head. And I had to pick myself up every time.''

Phil Mickelson was five shots away from the Grand Slam, but at least he can spend his offseason deciding what to serve his fellow Masters champions for dinner next April.

Tiger Woods always talks about giving himself a chance in the majors.

Think he wouldn't love to have a year like Els?

``A lot of people would love to have my year,'' Els said. ``It's just the bloody results that hurt.''

Els had one arm in the green jacket, making two eagles in the final round on his way to a 67. He was on the practice green as Mickelson stood over an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the Masters. The thunderous cheer that followed is still ringing in Els' ear.

He picked himself up in time to get into the final group at the U.S. Open, two shots behind Retief Goosen. A double bogey on the first hole sent him to an 80, his worst score ever in the major he has won twice.

Then came the British Open, where Els made a dynamic rally with birdies on the 16th and 17th at Royal Troon, followed by a 7-iron into 12 feet and a chance to win the claret jug. He had to be careful not to run the putt 6 feet by, left it a few inches short and never made another putt that mattered in a playoff loss to Todd Hamilton.

Still, he mustered up one last fight.

Els hit the purest shot at Whistling Straits, a 2-iron to within tap-in range for birdie on the 518-yard 15th hole -- into the wind, no less -- and followed with another birdie to give himself a chance. But his drive barely went through the fairway on the 18th, leaving him no shot at the flag. He wound up with a three-putt bogey from 80 feet, which ultimately left him one shot out of the playoff.

``I just want to forget about what happened,'' Els said. ``I want to start fresh again.''

Els has been down this road before.

Three years ago at Southern Hills, where he finished 14-over in the U.S. Open, he spoke softly about losing his fire. Els had finished runner-up in three majors the year before, a mental blow that carried over into the 2001 season. It was the only time in his career that he failed to win on the PGA Tour.

But he regrouped. He found that edge. He won the British Open at Muirfield.

Els was in a fog at Firestone, but he might have been more guilty of looking ahead than looking behind.

He said he would take a week off to play with his family, then start working his body back into shape. He talks about starting the process over, and analyzing why he didn't win a major.

Was it simply a matter of three putts?

``Maybe there's more to it than that,'' Els said. ``And maybe that's what I'll find out.''

They call him the Big Easy. Truth is, fewer guys are harder on themselves than Els. When someone asked if Els might feel better about his season in the majors -- four great chances -- as times passes, the slightest snarl crossed his lips.

``No,'' he said. ``I want to feel determined. I've gone too far to feel this is as far as I can go. I want to feel determined to get back to winning majors. I feel like I need to do it right now.''

The only thing he feels good about is his schedule, which he felt enabled him to peak at the majors. Els remains angry at the PGA Tour for making him play an extra event to compensate for the tournaments he plays overseas (don't expect him to return to La Costa any time soon for the Match Play Championship), but he won't waste energy on that battle.

He has to figure out how to get over the hump.

``I'll find an answer,'' he said.

The Masters is 224 days away. For Els, it can't get here soon enough.

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