— -- AUGUSTA, Ga. -- We've all been there, right? You get a little careless with a 2-foot par putt, your brain locks up, and you rap the ball a little too hard. It scoots two feet past the hole on the other side. That's what happened to Ernie Els on the first hole at the Masters on Thursday.
Except, then it happened again.
When Els mercifully raked his ball into the cup for a 9, it concluded one of the most cringeworthy and surreal opening holes in the history of the tournament. Els, a four-time major winner, just six-putted. You didn't want to laugh or crack a joke. You wanted to give Els a hug. His score was initially reported as a 10, in part because Els didn't know what he had. "I kind of lost count out there," he said.
Of course, if that happened to you or me at our local muni or country club, there is a good chance our friends might agree to concede anything inside five feet, just to spare us further embarrassment. If I'm being honest, there is at least a 30 percent chance I'd snap the putter over my knee and walk off the course.
The thought of walking off the course did cross Els' mind. He admitted as much after the round, citing the famous story of Bobby Jones picking up his ball on the 11th hole and walking to the clubhouse after taking four swings in a sand trap the first time he played the Old Course in St. Andrews. "I don't know how I stayed out there," Els said. "You love the game and you have respect for the tournament. But it's very tough what goes through your mind."
Instead of withdrawing, Els soldiered on in a pretty impressive display of athletic fortitude, finishing with an 80. He even made a long birdie putt on the fourth hole, and was hitting it, according to him, "half decent" from tee to green. But every time he left himself with a short putt, his brain seemed to short circuit.
"It's hard to explain, and I can't explain it," Els said. "It's something like there's a short up there. You just can't do what you normally do. A lot of people have stopped playing the game from getting that feeling."
No one likes to talk about the yips in golf. We treat it as if just saying the word might make them contagious. But it's obvious Els has the yips. He probably has had them for years, but the decision by golf's governing bodies to ban anchored putting, which forced Els to switch back to a short putter, meant he couldn't hide them anymore. He mentioned he was working with a putting coach the past few days, and he thought he was making progress, but his head was a mess by the time he reached the first green.
"I can't explain it. I couldn't take the putter back," Els said. "I'm standing there, I've got a 3-footer, I've made thousands of 3-footers, and I just couldn't take it back. The whole day was done."
Despite the embarrassment, Els didn't seem to mind answering several minutes of questions from the media. So we kept respectfully prying: Did he plan to change putters for Friday's round?
"I could putt with a stick and if you've got snakes going up in your brain, it's still difficult," he said.
Els has always been one of the game's friendly giants. His nickname, the Big Easy, is so well deserved. He has won plenty of tournaments, but he also has handled some of his toughest losses with the right mixture of grace and humor. When Phil Mickelson won his first Masters in 2004 -- holing a long birdie putt on 18 to avoid a playoff with Els -- the affable South African was asked what it felt like to have his heart broken that way. His answer is easily one of my favorite golf quotes of all time:
"After the seventh beer, I felt a lot better," Els said.
In March, when Rickie Fowler made a hole-in-one that earned $1 million for the Els for Autism Foundation, the video of Els bear-hugging Fowler and lifting him into the air in celebration was one of the best moments of the year. The genuine love Els showed Fowler in that moment -- in a speech afterward, he called him "my hero" -- was inspiring.
That's part of the reason it has been so hard to watch his putting deteriorate the way it has in recent years. It's ridiculous that the USGA felt anchored putting was such an egregious violation of the spirit of golf, and it had to be banned, but it has no problem with equipment, and a ball, that lets players like Jason Day and Dustin Johnson hit 370-yard drives. We've lost sight of the forest for the trees here.
Ben Hogan, maybe the greatest ball striker the game has ever seen, faced the same demons on the putting greens with which Els is currently wrestling, including at the Masters. In 1967, a 54-year-old Hogan shot a 66 in the final round to finish in a tie for fourth place, but he was mortified after the tournament by how long he labored over the ball.
"I don't know what it is, but something locks between my ears -- maybe it's sawdust -- and I just can't swing the putter back," Hogan told the Associated Press. "That's why it takes me so long to putt, and I know it's awful for the people to watch. It's embarrassing for me, even when I'm alone on a practice green. I get up there, and I just can't hit the ball."
Hogan never really found a way to cure his putting phobia. When he played golf with friends late in his life, he hated putting so much, his foursome would often play closest to the pin. Instead of putting, they'd pick up the ball. If anchored putting, or Sam Snead's croquet-style stroke (which was also banned), had extended their competitive careers, how would that have hurt the game?
Instead, we're talking about lengthening the 13th hole at Augusta, one of the most iconic holes on earth, because golf's governing bodies don't have the guts to curtail how far the golf ball goes. Anchoring a putter is the kind of rule we should be focusing on?
Els handled his first-hole meltdown about as well as he could have. But he admitted he's basically lost, and it was heartbreaking to hear him say it.
"I'm not sure where I'm going from here," he said.