AUGUSTA, Ga. - Ernie Els figures if you keep knocking on the door, it might open sooner or later.
The South African goes to the gate at Augusta National today having posted five straight top-six finishes at the Masters.
He was preparing for a playoff last year when Phil Mickelson ran in a victorious, 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. Els also finished second in 2000.
"My first time here was 1994 and I finished eighth," Els said yesterday.
"That wasn't a bad start. So, I think right from the get-go my expectations always have been to win this tournament. I've had some good times here, but winning is everything right now, so I'd love to win this tournament."
He owns a pair of U.S. Open titles and has a victory in the British Open.
But his closet is without a green jacket.
"If you give yourself just one opportunity to win here, I think you've done very well," Els said. "Obviously, I've given myself numerous opportunities to walk away with a green jacket and it hasn't happened. But all you can ask for is to have the opportunity on Sunday to win and I've done that.
"All I can do is prepare myself to have another go. Hopefully, this is the year."
The Masters, where he led briefly in the final round after the first of his two eagles that day, wasn't the only near-miss major for Els last year.
He was two shots behind heading into the final round of the U.S. Open, but shot an astounding and uncharacteristic 80 in the final round at Shinnecock Hills. He birdied two of the last three holes to force a playoff in the British Open, but lost to Todd Hamilton at Royal Troon. He rallied from four back at Whistling Straits, but faltered at the finish and was left one stroke out of a playoff won by Vijay Singh in the PGA Championship.
Els and Mickelson were the only golfers to post top-10 finishes in all four 2004 majors.
Els is excited to be back in Augusta and feels his game is again up to the challenge.
"I'm glad that I've hit some form, although it wasn't on the U.S. circuit," said Els, who has wins this year in Dubai and Qatar. "I've been out in the desert, but I've got a couple wins under my belt and I've felt the pressure. It's very important to have played one or two tournaments very, very well because there's a different feel of pressure here at Augusta. I'm prepared for that."
THEY'RE BACK: Commercial sponsorship returns to the Masters telecasts this year after a two-year hiatus following pre-tournament protests in 2003 by women's rights activist Martha Burk.
The Masters is being sponsored by IBM, SBC Communications, and Exxon-Mobil.
Commercial interruption will be limited to four minutes out of every hour during telecasts on USA and CBS networks.
"Well, I guess order is restored and we are happy to have them back," Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said yesterday. "We could have gone on indefinitely without sponsors. However, we have a huge project under way and it will be pretty demanding financially. It would stretch out a long time without sponsors, so we are happy to have them."
The project entails relocating about 3,000 patron parking places to nearby club-owned property in order to build a new practice facility. Johnson said the project should be completed by 2010.
STARTER-LESS: There will not be an honorary starter at the Masters for the second straight year since death claimed Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, and since Byron Nelson felt he was physically unable to continue. But Johnson hopes four-time Masters champion Arnold Palmer, who played in his 50th and final Masters last spring, will take over in the near future.
"We are going to hold that position until Arnold is ready to go," Johnson said. "We hope it won't be too long."
Palmer, who is an Augusta National member, said, "We'll see," when asked about it yesterday. He attended the Champions Dinner Tuesday night, made a brief visit to the clubhouse yesterday, then left town. He did not take part in the annual Par 3 Contest.
THE FIELD: The Masters begins today with 93 starters, 44 of whom are international players and four of whom are amateurs.
CHA-CHING: In case you're wondering, Tiger Woods has compiled $58,419,945 in on-course earnings worldwide since turning pro in 1996.46.8132 8.22395