It is now 29 years since Jack Nicklaus, then 46, won at Augusta National.
The intervening years have proved victory at such a stage in life to be the exception rather than rule, a matter only enhanced by the lengthening of the Masters course to its current brutal extent of almost 7,500 yards. Nicklaus was also such an outstanding talent that subsequent comparison is perhaps invalid in any case; this marked his sixth Masters triumph and final major of 18.
Now 45, Ernie Els will make his 21st appearance at Augusta next month. He is well placed to discuss the disparity or otherwise between young and old in modern-day professional golf, having won his first major in 1994 and most recent only three years ago, when Adam Scott was dramatically upstaged at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
“I am not as long as other guys,” Els acknowledges. “Phil Mickelson is a lot longer than I am, he definitely has a chance and is someone you have to watch out for there.
“I have had a lot of bad fortune at Augusta but still always feel I have a chance. But you have still got to favour the young guys. Rory McIlroy has already won four majors, he is only 25 and streets ahead of his generation of players. It is almost like a ‘Tiger effect’. Rickie Fowler is close, Jordan Spieth is probably the next best thing of the youngsters then you have Bubba Watson, who is tailor-made for the [Augusta] golf course.”
Not that Els will return to Georgia without hope. As he rightly points out, experience can offset youthful vigour. “I don’t try and compare myself to them,” he adds. “I am 45, I remember when my heroes – Greg Norman, Nick Price, Bernhard Langer – got older. They still tried to compete and I am there now.
“At my best I feel I am good enough. I haven’t been at my best for a while now but I really feel like I have a chance to win a major. The younger guys are in a position now which is kind of weird; they have all the confidence going but they have still got to do it. We have done it. For them to get to that next step, a huge step as you saw with Adam when I won the Open [in 2012]; you will see things like that happen because it means so much. So you could see [older] guys sneak a major here and there.”
Els is back in a positive mental place. He tied 13th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, making 21 birdies over four rounds and a closing one of 68. Bizarrely for a player of his talent, this represented his first made cut on the PGA Tour in 2015.
“I needed that,” he says. “I had a nice full schedule, at the AT&T event a month ago I felt really good about my game but missed the cut. Then I was really down at Riviera, I didn’t enjoy the Honda Classic with the weather, things kind of jumped on me; I had gone a month and not made a cheque. I don’t think I had ever done that before.”
By his own admission, Els had quickly descended into “la la land”. This week will prove easier; he plans a complete break, involving “the playing of tennis and eating a lot” until Thursday, when he will begin preparation for the Shell Houston Open. “I really feel I have a chance at Houston. I want to get to the point where I am competing again,” says the South African.
From there, Els will head for Augusta. The one year since 1994 that he wasn’t present for the first major of the season, 2012, merely intensified his hunger for the Masters scene. “You always appreciate it, it is so special,” Els says. “I don’t want to say the most special but it is still unbelievably special, especially given that time I didn’t get in the field and was able to go back.
“It excites you more when you have game, which I am starting to have. I have gone in there with a lot of game and gone in there with no game; it is not a lot of fun when you have none but it is a really great week when you have game and you are feeling the excitement of the crowd on the golf course.”
Els has been there, seen it, done it all before. Which is probably an undervalued asset.
This article was written by Ewan Murray, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 25th March 2015 09.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010