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DESPITE SETBACKS, ELS CHARGES ON

There's an aura of inevitability surrounding Ernie Els that portends a Masters championship in his future. He's finished in the top six for five years running. He's been runner-up twice. It would seem Els' day is destined to arrive, that he'll don that elusive green jacket, but the logic prevails only until one recalls the plight of Greg Norman and realizes that sometimes golf makes promises it doesn't intend to keep.

No one knocked harder on Augusta's door than Norman, whose lasting legacy in these picturesque parts consists of riveting near-misses. Jack Nicklaus, 46, played two decades younger in edging him by a stroke in 1986. Little-known Larry Mize chipped in from 140 feet on the second hole of a playoff to eviscerate him in '87. And then there was the '96 meltdown for the ages, when Norman reached for the overhead oxygen mask and the floatable seat cushion without avail, shooting a final-round 78 to blow a six-shot lead and succumb to steely Nick Faldo.

Els, 35, has known similar feelings of despair. Tied with Vijay Singh after two rounds in 2000, he shot 2-over 74 on Saturday and finished a three-back runner-up. Within striking distance on the final day in '02, he made triple-bogey on the par-5 13th and backtracked to sixth.

Undeterred by past failures, perhaps even fortified by the experiences, Els reversed course last year, went from the giver to the taker. He produced two eagles and three birdies Sunday, molding a gorgeous 67. He was warming up on the practice green, 18 feet from a playoff, when Phil Mickelson sank the putt that sent thunder throughout the hills and Els back to his Orlando, Fla., home feeling gutted.

"I'm not sure what went through my mind," Els said. "I just heard the roar, and I couldn't see that it was Phil, but after hearing the people's applause and stuff, you know, I knew it was Phil. I packed my stuff and got out of town. It was a strange, strange time, those 10, 15 minutes."

"He'd done all he could," said fellow South African Retief Goosen. "Ernie has taken it in good light and learned a lot from it. Obviously, he knew it was just one shot here or there, maybe the wrong club or wrong decision, and it cost him. He'll be a factor this year in every major we play."

Els had work to do this morning if he was to emerge as a serious contender this time around. Bogeys on his first two holes Thursday (Nos. 10 and 11) made for a start as overcast as the weather, which delayed the opening of competition by 5 1/2 hours. He sat 3 over in an 11-hole round shortened by darkness, an ominous sign. No one's won the Masters following an opening 3-over 75 since Craig Stadler in 1982. The last player to open 2 over and triumph was Mark O'Meara in 1998. Early birdies will be the mission as Els, who was in the next-to-last group to the tee, was to face 25 holes today.

"The Big Easy" was hyped as the game's next dominant player after winning the 1994 U.S. Open at 25. It never happened. Along came Tiger Woods to instill a gnawing doubt where bountiful confidence had resided. Els still had his major moments, winning the U.S. Open again in '97 and the British Open in '02, but he confessed Tiger's mastery had frayed his nerves and even tempered his ambitions. The mental rebuilding began in 2002, when Els formed a relationship with Jos Vanstiphout, a sports psychologist who'd been working with Goosen.

A deeper resiliency has resulted. Els rebounded from the searing disappointment of Augusta to challenge in last season's remaining three majors, all top-10 finishes, with the British Open lost to Todd Hamilton in a playoff.

"He's just an all-around great player," Vijay Singh said. "He's probably one of the best putters in the world. In crunch time, he can make putts that you never think he's going to make."

Els yearns for the opportunity that was granted Mickelson, for a putt to win the Masters and secure the major championship he covets most of all. He's envisioned the moment almost as long as he can remember.

"I think I'm the same as anybody," Els said. "I can't speak for the other guys, but that is something I've been chasing since I was 10 years old, to be honest with you. All the practice I've done, in the dark, chipping with my brother, hitting putts . . . it's all preparing me to win (this) tournament."

He'll need some help, a bit more of the good fortune he experienced in chipping in for birdie on his eighth hole (the 17th). Sometimes that's what's required, outside forces intervening to supplement the human effort.

"If Lady Luck is going to be on my side, I don't know," Els said. "I'm going to be as positive as I can be -- but Lady Luck needs to be on your side every now and again."

Els keeps waiting his turn, waiting for the old gal to put her hand on his shoulder. Past results suggest his day is forthcoming, but golf, as Norman can attest, isn't necessarily a game of natural progression.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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