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Ernie Els has things to prove in 2005

With the four majors of 2004 behind him, Ernie Els went to the WGC-NEC Invitational at Firestone the week after the PGA Championship with another chance to ascend to No. 1 in the world rankings. He never broke par -- and he didn't really care.

"It's a pity this week was this week," Els said after finishing 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, maybe I could have played golf."

Els unleashed that easy smile that day at Firestone, 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.

But he won no majors, and enters the 2005 season unsure whether to be pleased over contending so frequently in golf's biggest events or miserable for failing to convert any of those chances into another major crown.

In 2003, Els won four of his first five tournaments and 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.

But in 2004, he felt 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 is spending 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 Open Championship, 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 to win his first PGA Championship. 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 Open Championship at Muirfield.

As 2004 wound to a close, Els took some time off to be with his family, then started 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 upset with the PGA Tour for making him play more in America to compensate for the tournaments he plays overseas, but he won't waste any more 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 four months away. For Els, it can't get here soon enough.

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