For almost 20 years, Ernie Els had a standing invite to the Masters.
Last year, his name wasn't on the guest list.
This year, he's back after a surprise victory at the 2012 British Open gave him a get-in-free card for the next five years.
"That's all you can ask for at my age," the 43-year-old said Wednesday. "To be able to play with the top players in the world at this level for the next five years means the world."
From the first time he played here, there's been something about Augusta National that agrees with Els. He tied for eighth in his debut in 1994. He's been runner-up twice, in 2000 and 2004, and never finished lower than sixth in the years in between.
He's missed only four cuts in the 18 times he's played, and failed to crack the top 25 another four years.
"I feel when I'm on my game, this place is perfect for me because it really tests your everything," he said. "Your mental strength, your patience. And then, physically, you've got to drive the ball, irons as well, chip and putt — all of that stuff. You can't fluke winning it."
As difficult as it is to win, it's almost as tough to get in.
For 18 straight years, that wasn't a problem for Els. His major championships — he won the 1994 and '97 U.S. Opens as well as the 2002 British Open — earned him five-year exemptions, and it was a rare year when he wasn't in the top 20 on the PGA Tour.
But after winning twice in 2010, his career began a downward spiral. He was winless in 2011, and missed the cut at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. His only top-10 finish was a fourth at the Frys.com Open, a Fall Series event when most of the golf world has already wound down for the season.
He fell to 93rd on the PGA Tour money list, the first time he'd been out of the 50 since his second season.
Els knew he'd have to scramble early in the 2012 season to reclaim his spot at the Masters, and he was in the top five at the Transitions Championship and Bay Hill. Needing a win at the Houston Open to get to Augusta National, he finished in a tie for 12th.
Though there was talk of giving Els a special exemption, that's all it was — talk.
So for the first time since 1993, he spent Masters week at home.
"Obviously, I missed not being here," he said. "I had a good run in March last year and I knew what I needed to do. I just kind of fell short. It was fine, really. It was almost better they didn't invite me because I felt I could play myself back in here. And that's the way it should be."
Two weeks after the Masters, Els had a 6-foot putt to win on the first hole of a playoff with Jason Dufner. It never had a chance, but it was a sign that the big South African still had plenty of game.
He had an outside shot at the U.S. Open until a poor wedge shot on 16 in the final round. Then, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Els birdied his final hole and went to the clubhouse, fully expecting Adam Scott to hold onto his lead. But Scott unraveled, closing with four straight bogeys and all but handed the claret jug to Els.
It may not have been exactly the way Els envisioned returning to the top of the game, but it didn't matter.
"I always thought it," Els said. "But doing it is a different thing."
Though Scott's collapse was painful to watch, the fact it was Els who benefitted made it tolerable.
"Obviously I was rooting for him," said Trevor Immelman, a fellow South African and the 2008 Masters champion. "It was hard because I'm really close friends with Adam, too, and it would be nice to see him win a major. Or a few. But obviously for Ernie, he's been such a great champion for so long. It was really great for him and great for the game that he got another one under his belt."
Added Nick Faldo, "I like Ernie because he guts-ed it out. ... You've done it, you've got three majors under your belt at that time and he didn't take anything for granted. He knows he's in the 11th hour of his career. He gave it 200 percent and he got rewarded with an Open championship."
Aside from a tie for second at the HSBC Champions, Els hasn't done much of note since the British. His tie for 13th at the Northern Trust Open is his only top-25 finish this year, and he missed the cut at Bay Hill, his last event.
"I haven't had good results this year, let's not kid ourselves," Els said. "I would love to have come with a bit more game. But I'm here and I'll do my best to do as well as I can. I feel things are coming around a little bit, and I'm starting to fight a little bit better. But this is Augusta. You've got to be sharp and I'm not as sharp as I wanted to be.
"But," he added, "I'm still here."