SAN FRANCISCO -- Barring a dramatic surge in the next two weeks, or an unexpected special exemption, Ernie Els will not tee off in the Masters on April 5. This has generated spirited debate in golf circles the past few days, ever since Els folded on the final two holes of Sunday's PGA Tour event outside St. Petersburg, Fla.
The thought of a Masters without Els seems incomprehensible -- is it really a major without the Big Easy in the field? -- but it's a byproduct of his mediocre play. He can blame only himself, or his balky putter, if he misses the Masters for the first time since 1994.
Here's the more intriguing question: What if Els doesn't earn an exemption into the U.S. Open in San Francisco in June?
That possibility is even harder to stomach, because Els is a two-time Open champion. He won at Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, in 1994 -- a strapping, fresh-faced, 24-year-old splashing onto the scene -- and again at Congressional, outside Washington, D.C., in 1997.
Even so, Els is not qualified for this year's Open at the Olympic Club. Past champions are exempt for 10 years, so his time has run out on that front. He doesn't qualify in any of the other various categories, either. His best chance is climbing into the top 60 in the world ranking as of May 21 or June 11.
He's ranked No. 62 this week.
There's still time, in other words. And Els always could take his chances in sectional qualifying, joining Joe Public Golfer in an oh-so-democratic quest to earn a spot in the 156-man field.
That's not right, to force a two-time winner to tromp through sectionals. So consider this a pre-emptive strike: Els deserves a tee time at Olympic, no matter what. If the USGA can award a special exemption to Vijay Singh, as it did two years ago at Pebble Beach -- Singh has won zero Opens in his career -- then surely it can save a spot for Els.
(Fair point: This creates a dilemma for USGA officials, because another two-time Open winner, Lee Janzen, also is not exempt. Janzen lacks the stature and track record of Els, but he won the last Open held at the Olympic Club in 1998. No wonder USGA officials want Els to qualify on his own.)
As for the Masters, Els could play his way into the field by winning this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational or next week's Houston Open. He also could benefit from a groundswell of support -- empathy? -- in the wake of Sunday's bogey-bogey finish, when he nervously missed a 4-foot par putt on the 72nd hole.
Augusta National officials no doubt understand Els' lofty place in the game. He owns 64 worldwide wins, including 18 on the PGA Tour. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last year. He's a terrific ambassador, no question.
Els also has not won the Masters, despite many chances. He twice has won the U.S. Open. Big difference.