AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — If this was Ernie Els' final round at the Masters, he's made peace with the long-ago predictions for Augusta National success that never came true.
The Big Easy completed his 23rd Masters on Sunday with a 6-over 78, better than the 83 he scored Saturday but still nowhere close to what the 47-year-old four-time major champion still expects out of his game.
He finished at 20 over, dead last in the field and three shots behind 58-year-old Larry Mize. Els' five-year exemption into Augusta National for winning the 2012 British Open expired this year. He'll have to earn his way back through better golf.
Els is content either way, desiring another chance to play amid the Georgia pines but grateful for the 23 years he's had to chase a green jacket.
"This tournament was just not for me," he said. "I've won a lot of events around the world, but this one just eluded me. And that's fine."
Els opened strongly with an even-par 72 Thursday and made the cut for the 17th time with a 75 on Friday. His game went south after that, with an 83 on Saturday — his highest score ever here — that included three double bogeys.
Els, first on the course Sunday, could not muster much of a final-round charge. He had a brief flourish with back-to-back birdies on the seventh and eight holes before his struggles re-emerged in the form of consecutive double bogeys on the 13th and 14th.
Els said early bird patrons setting up chairs for the afternoon shootout sure to come gave him applause and ovations, a testament to the South African's Hall of Fame career. If only, he said, he could've done his part on the course.
"The negative was just my play was atrocious," he said. "That's the hard part to take."
Els was a tall, young golfer with a fluid swing when he arrived at Augusta National in 1994. The rookie finished eighth that year, his play touching off predictions of multiple green jackets for a player whose game seemed perfectly matched to Augusta.
His peak at the Masters came in a run from 2000 through 2004 with five consecutive finishes in the top six, including runner-up finishes to Vijay Singh in 2000 and Phil Mickelson in 2004. The one-stroke loss to Mickelson, best remembered for Lefty's celebration leap on No. 18, took something out of Els, who never again finished better than 13th.
Els said his initial trip here was among his most memorable experiences. He played with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw in one round and that year's winner, Jose Maria Olazabal, in another.
Els said the things he learned from them at Augusta National helped him two months later when he stunned the golf world to win the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Els added another U.S. Open title in 1997 and two British Open titles in 2002 and 2012.
He said Sunday he'll do his best to pick up a qualifying victory, starting next week at the RBC Heritage on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, to play the Masters again. But he won't lose sleep if it doesn't, happy with a career featuring several major highs to blunt the lows like this week.
"If I get back, great," Els said. "It's obviously not totally out of the picture. But if it is, it is."
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