AUGUSTA, Ga. — Ernie Els was 2 feet from a par to start the Masters.
Twenty-four measly inches.
Then, the unimaginable happened.
One miss. And another. And another. And another. And another.
Finally, on his sixth putt — a one-handed swat that showed his total disgust — Els finished off a quintuple-bogey 9 that essentially ruined any hope of contending for a green jacket on the very first hole Thursday.
Talk about a hard one to take for the Big Easy.
“I can’t explain it,” said Els, who went on to shoot an 8-over 80 that matched his highest score ever at Augusta National and left him a whopping 14 shots behind leader Jordan Spieth. “You’re not able to do what you normally do. It’s unexplainable.”
Els posted the worst score ever at No. 1, a 445-yarder known as “Tea Olive.”
No one at the Masters had ever gone higher than 8 on the par-4 hole.
“I feel bad for Ernie,” said Spieth, the defending Masters champion. “It’s obviously in your head. I’ve certainly had my moments, everybody has, from short range, where they just are not confident in where they are starting it. And on Augusta National’s greens, with the wind blowing, it’s a place you certainly want to be comfortable.”
Making the whole scene downright surreal, none of the putts appeared longer than 4 feet. Els just kept knocking the ball back and forth past the cup, totally bedeviled by not only the slick, treacherous greens at Augusta National, but basically a meltdown in his mental approach.
He missed so many times, the score was initially recorded as a 10 instead of a 9. It was easy to lose count. Even Els wasn’t quite sure how many times he putted.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that,” said Jason Day, who was playing with Els. “You don’t want to see any player go through something like that. It can be sometimes career ending for guys like that if they really are fighting it that much. I just want Ernie to kind of get back to what he used to do, and start playing some good golf again and try to get past this.”
Els’ correct score was finally posted after he finished his round.
Not that it was much solace to the South African.
“I can’t get the putter to go back,” Els said. “I’m not sure where I go from here.”
Tom Watson, playing in the Masters for the final time, said Els’ putts were harder than they might have looked, especially on a blustery day.
“It’s probably the windiest green on the golf course,” Watson said.
But Els said the conditions had nothing with it.
He three-putted from 25 feet at No. 2. He missed a 6-footer at the 15th, an 8-footer at the 16th, and a 4-footer at the 17th. Finally, he closed with a three-putt from 16 feet at the final hole, the crowd groaning one last time in the fading sunlight.
Els’ only real highlight with the putter was a 40-foot birdie at the fifth.
“I can count up 15 shots I lost out there just on the greens,” Els moaned.
After the third putt at No. 1, Els stared at the ball with a disbelieving hint of a smile. By the end, he let his frustration get the best of him, making a half-hearted flick at the ball with one hand on the club from less than a foot away. Naturally, it lipped out.
This one would’ve been tough to take for a weekend duffer.
Imagine how a guy who has won four major titles must’ve felt, though it wasn’t the first time Els has come down with the yips at a major championship.
At the first hole of the 2014 British Open, he struck a spectator in the face with his opening tee shot and was still shaken when he got to the green. Els missed a 1-foot putt, and then missed again when he carelessly tried to back-hand the ball into the hole.
But that was only a triple-bogey.
Els kept saying that he’s at a loss to explain his putting woes. Late Wednesday afternoon, after most players had left the course, he was still on the putting green working with famed coach David Leadbetter.
“It wouldn’t matter if I putted with a stick,” Els said. “When snakes are going off in your brain, it’s difficult.”
The sequence was so far-fetched, the high-tech shot tracker on the Masters web site couldn’t handle it. The system at first showed only seven shots for Els, went down temporarily, and finally returned with 10 shots logged in. Obviously, no one had expected a professional golfer to need that many strokes on one hole, even if it was actually only nine.
For Els, it was a far cry from his start a year ago, when he opened the Masters with a 5-under 67 that left him only three strokes behind eventual winner Spieth.
There was no chance of him shooting a 67 this time around.
Not after a six-putt.