Hard to watch Big Easy Ernie El’s meltdown at the Masters

Somewhere between Jordan Spieth two-putting the par-5 13 to reach five under and jamming an approach to 5 feet at the 18th to set up one more birdie and a round of 66, the first round of the 80th Masters produced a hole in the pit of your stomach.

Unless, of course, you’re one of those miserable lads who likes seeing grown men — Hall of Fame grown men, no less — take seven putts from about 3 feet and make a sextuple-bogey.

Then you probably leaped for joy at Ernie Els’ heartache.

Now you, me and Uncle Eamonn often toss down the obligatory X when a particular hole goes badly. But guys who’ve won two Opens on each side of the pond? Guys who’ve won 66 professional tournaments all over the globe? Guys who’ve long since established themselves as icons?

They don’t make 10s, do they?

If you ever expected the answer to that question to be, “Yes, they do,” then consider yourself a member of a small minority, because you would never think such a score possible for a player of Els’ quality. Nor would you think it possible for it to unfold as it did — a 3-foot putt to save par turning into a seven-putt.

So sickening was it to watch that you wanted to scream. Playing competitors Jason Day and Matt Kuchar likely couldn’t stand to watch. And what does one say to Els if he’s the marker. “Excuse me, Ernie. But was that six putts or seven? Oh, and how are the wife and kids?”

The time of Els’ hiccup times seven, he was 6 over and just one hole into his Masters he was a whopping 11 strokes behind. Tell me he had a song in his heart as he walked to the second tee.

Yes, bad things happen to good golfers, even on a day when terrific things happened to a terrific golfer. Spieth’s 66 tied a Masters record for best first-round score for a defending champion and means that in nine rounds at Augusta National he is 29-under and now has gone bogey-free twice.

Brilliant stuff for the 22-year-old, and even while some notable names were trying to chase him down (Jason Day, Shane Lowry, Bubba Watson, to name a few), Spieth was assured of a delectable dinner.

Such was not the case for Els. Honestly, the tastiest filet will feel like shoe leather hours after a seven-putt, and a betting man would wager that Rickie Fowler wasn’t going to have much of an appetite, either. Not after opening with an 80.

That’s right, 80.

Having carried a sub-par scoring average into Augusta National (71.95) for his 20 rounds, Fowler chopped up the first hole, also, though nothing like Els. He made a double-bogey, though by the time he birdied the fifth, Fowler had fought back to get to 1-under. Then, an inexplicable melt-down — water balls at 13 and 16 cost him five strokes and a closing bogey at the 18th had him signing for 8 over.

Each of the last two years, Fowler has finished T-5 and T-12 at the Masters, so you know he came here riding a wave confidence. People talked of him as a possible favorite, so imagine what must be going on in his mind.

Whereas he’s never missed the cut in five Masters, Fowler will clearly have his work cut out for him Saturday, if he wants to be around for the weekend. What a sense of disappointment, especially given the high of one day earlier, the Par 3 Tournament when Fowler recorded a hole-in-one to ignite roars.

“Golf’s not an easy game,” Fowler said, trying to maintain a positive demeanour. He faced questions about the wet shots at 13 and 16, pointed to devilish wind shifts, and shrugged. “They add up quick.”

When they do and it’s the first round of the first major championship of the season, the feeling is exponentially more crushing. Not that Fowler doesn’t have experience — he opened with 81 at last summer’s US Open.

Curious stuff on this opening day of the 80th Masters, so tidy the play of Spieth, but so deflating for guys like Fowler, Els, and even Adam Scott, already an owner of a green jacket.

Having won twice earlier in March, Scott was considered a favorite this week, only he failed to make a birdie at any of the par 5s and signed for six sloppy bogeys.

No, you can’t win the Masters on Thursday. But you sure as heck can squander your chances at victory after 18 holes.

Or in Els’ case, after seven putts on the first green.


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