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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ernie Els' love-hate relationship with the Masters is trending in the right direction again.
The four-time major winner made a nice recovery from the trees to save par at No. 1, then slowly picked up momentum en route to a 67 Thursday that left in a four-way tie for second behind leader Jordan Spieth. Both Els' score and placement marked first-round bests for the South African, competing in his 21st Masters.
"I remember vividly my first Masters, '94, like I played it yesterday," Els recalled. "I played with Ben Crenshaw ... shot 66 in the second round with Ben and he was so gracious, so nice, and said, "You know, you're going to win this tournament if you keep putting like that."
Els, 45, shared in the knowing laughs that reverberated through the interview room. Nicknamed the "Big Easy," he's won two U.S. and British Opens, but nothing has come easy at Augusta.
He's been runner-up twice, most recently in 2004, when Phil Mickelson dropped an 18-foot birdie putt at the final hole to win by a stroke. It was a particularly tough loss, since Els hadn't finished worse than sixth in the four years previous. He's finished no better than a tie for 18th in the years since, including four missed cuts and failing to qualify in 2012. He likened it to a "hangover."
"Definitely, must be," Els said. "Definitely. I was trying to wipe it under the carpet that I wanted this one so badly for so many years; definitely, there was something going on. Kind of, you get fed up with yourself. Never with Augusta, you know, but yourself with the mistakes that you make.
"I kind of doubt, not doubted, but I felt that I left shots out there in that span, that five-, six-year span," he added. "So a little frustration set in there, yeah."
Despite a three-putt bogey at No. 18, Els saw plenty of reason for optimism. He made an eagle and five birdies, continuing a scoring streak that began at Bay Hill (21 birdies) and stretched through last week at Houston (20).
"So that means that when I'm on, I'm doing something well. But I've had the odd bad hole here and there. So I've been trying to stay patient today," he said, "and felt very comfortable on the greens.'
Yet he also acknowledged feeling more pressure with advancing age. Since he won the British Open already into his 40s, someone asked what a second major at this stage of his career would mean.
"Well, that's the plan," he said to laughter. "So we'll see what happens.
"I think it's well documented that I still feel like I get something out of it. But, you know, these guys are good," Els added. "I've got a lot of talent, but you've got to get the most out of it now, we're running out of time. But I'll be up for it."