AUGUSTA, GA. -- Ernie Els has won a pair of U.S. Opens and a British but there was no masking his dejection Sunday after missing yet another chance at a Masters title.
Els has been in the hunt for a green jacket just about every one of the 11 times he has teed it up at Augusta National but none of the previous heartbreaks could compare with this one.
He had thrown everything he had at Phil Mickelson, notorious in the past for finding a way to lose. But, just Els' luck, he came up against a Mickelson who was ready to use his head as well as his talent.
"I always had a sense that this was my year, you know," Els said. "I felt it from Thursday on. But (Mickelson) won this one. He didn't lose it like some of the other ones. Full credit to him."
There was, however, a sense of opportunity lost for Els in his quest to join some of the game's immortals in winning the career Grand Slam. If he had been victorious on Sunday, he would need only the PGA Championship to join Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player in that exclusive club.
"That would be the perfect world for me," Els had said in his pre-Masters press session.
Sunday, he played well enough to win his third leg. Mickelson, with five birdies in the last seven holes, just played better.
"I gave it my absolute best," Els said. "I'm very disappointed now, but I'll get over it. I'm chasing that little Grand Slam in my career. I'll have another shot, I'm sure of that. I feel like I'll win a major this year."
Every year after the Masters, there is a renewed recognition of the kind of intensity the majors kindle. That sense is especially strong at Augusta which seems to have just the right formula of risk and reward on its back nine to allow for plenty of movement up and down the leaderboard.
There was some concern during the early rounds this year that some of that drama had been lost because many of the holes were lengthened, taking away eagle and birdie possibilities by forcing players to be more conservative.
But there are still some vulnerable pin placements on almost all those back nine holes and the Masters committee did an excellent job of using them to inject some drama into Sunday's proceedings.
Els and others were able to be aggressive at the pins and he, in particular, was rewarded with two eagles and two birdies on the four par-5s in the final round.
But when it came to the 18th and another accessible pin placement, it was Els and not Mickelson who made the tactical error.
Els hit his driver and it went into the gaping fairway bunker, leaving him a 140-yard sand shot. He hit a decent approach but didn't get close enough to the flag to make birdie. Meanwhile, Mickelson hit a 3-wood off the tee and laid back in the fairway, then nailed a 162-yard 8-iron into position for his winning birdie.
"I had a huge margin for error," Mickelson said. "I knew anything right of the pin would be fine and would funnel down."
The rest, as they say, was history.
Now that we don't have Mickelson to kick around anymore who inherits the mantel of best player not to have won a major?
There are not a lot of obvious candidates. There is a whole class of great young players who haven't been around quite long enough to be considered. Adam Scott, Charles Howell III, Chad Campbell and even Sergio Garcia are included there. Garcia was stunningly petulant Sunday after lighting up Augusta National with the lowest score of the tournament, a 66. He whined about everything, including his own bad luck.
Colin Montgomerie always has been a favourite target but his best-before date has come and gone. Perhaps, in the end, the inheritor of Mickelson's crown will come from a trio of international players that includes Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Stuart Appleby.
Whoever it is, Mickelson is just glad it's no longer on his shoulders.