While the 2012 Masters tournament is already anticipated to be one of the most memorable in decades by fans and journalists alike, it will already be unforgettable for one player -- and for all the wrong reasons.
For the past 18 years, South African Ernie Els has been a participant in the invitation-only annual event thanks to his strong play. Last year, he was immortalized in the form of a Hall of Fame induction. A multiple-major winner in his own right, Els had become a fixture on Augusta National's fairways and greens during Masters Week, often appearing on the first page of the leaderboard in the process. Always a competitor and a threat to the rest of the field, Els unfortunately has fallen short numerous times of achieving his goal of donning the Green jacket on Masters Sunday. Sadly, this year will be no different for The Big Easy.
Els fell below the Top 50 golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings and did not receive an automatic invitation to the event for the first time in quite awhile. This is not to say he didn't have his chances, of course. Two weeks ago, Els needed to finish first or second at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill for a chance to break the Top-50 mark, but sadly he let the opportunity slip away in the final round thanks to a shaky putter and errant iron play. At last week's Shell Houston Open, Els needed to win the tournament for another chance to earn his spot at Augusta, but once again fell short.
Throughout his quest to earn an invitation to the Masters this year, rumors circulated that the Augusta National board would extend a special exemption to Els. This is an honor that very few former players have been offered in the 70-plus year history of the tournament. Regardless, Els has repeatedly stated that he would turn down such an invitation, wishing to instead earn his way to Augusta without the need for any exemption.
When Els first burst onto the golfing scene in the early 1990's, writers and fans suspected that he would be a multiple-major winner en route to becoming one of the greatest international players of all time. These sentiments were strengthened by his first US Open victory in 1994, and even more so after his second US Open victory in 1997. Els was never more confident in his abilities at that time, going so far as making the Career Slam his ultimate professional goal. When he finally won his third major at the 2002 British Open, Els was only two major victories away from achieving his dream.
Injury and age would ultimately catch up with Els following the 2002 season, however, along with increased family commitments tending to his two children, Samantha and Ben. In 2008 Els spent most of his time away from the course promoting the "Autism Speaks" campaign after the family learned of their son's diagnosis of the condition that same year. Since that time Els has continued his work with various foundations to help raise awareness of autism, for which he should be commended.
So what does this mean for the veteran golfer, who is now well into his 40's? Els has already vowed to get his game back on track so he can return to the Masters in 2013, but one cannot help but wonder if this year's failure marks the possible downturn of a heralded career. Only time -- and Ernie -- have the answer to that question.