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He's a master at getting over it

Els not dwelling on losing `fight'

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Ernie Els spent a rough night Sunday replaying the final moments of his second-place finish to Phil Mickelson in the Masters.

"After the seventh beer, though," the Big Easy said, laughing, "I felt a lot better."

Els posted a 67 in the final round -- helped by eagles on the eighth and 13th holes -- only to watch Mickelson shoot a career-defining 31 on Augusta National's back nine to win by a stroke.

"It was a good heavyweight fight, wasn't it?" Els said yesterday.

Certainly the best on the PGA Tour this year.

Els joked and grinned his way around Harbour Town Golf Links, where he will tee off this morning in the MCI Heritage.

Still, it was a bitter defeat at a tournament the South African star desperately wants to win. He returned to his home in Orlando, Fla., and went over every missed shot, botched putt, failed gamble, or safe play he could have turned into something special. A couple of shots here or there, Els knew, and he would be the one celebrating.

"What if, what if, what if," he said, smiling. "There's so many."

Friends from South Africa helped to cheer up Els, and he spent Monday and Tuesday around his family before coming to Hilton Head.

"You can't kill yourself over it," he said. "What's over and done is done."

Els has won two US Opens and a British Open. However, he has rarely felt the intense excitement he did while battling Mickelson Sunday.

"It's almost an out-of-body experience, feeling you can do whatever it takes to succeed," he said. "I could see that Phil was in the exact same frame of mind."

Mickelson picked up the first major win of his career when he put an 8-iron about 18 feet away on the 18th green, then made the birdie putt for victory. Els was on the putting green practicing for a playoff when he heard the thunderous roar that told him his day was done.

It was the fifth straight year Els finished sixth or better at Augusta National.

The crowd at Harbour Town treated Els like he had won the coveted green jacket. They cheered and snapped pictures as he walked down fairways and up to greens. "Good playing, Ernie," a woman called out after his opening pro-am tee shot. Els graciously turned, smiled, and held the pose for a snapshot.

Davis Love, a five-time MCI Heritage winner and defending champion, knows what Els is dealing with. In 1995, Love shot a final-round 66, then watched as friend Ben Crenshaw made birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 to win the Masters.

"I had a feeling that [Els] might've won," Love said.

Love has talked with Els since Sunday. "He feels like, `Hey, I played great down the stretch. I felt like I won the golf tournament when I walked off the 18th green, and somebody just came in played better than me and beat me,' " Love said. "I felt the same satisfaction in '95 -- that I got beat by a guy that played special golf."

Els says he wrote Mickelson as much in a congratulatory letter. The two haven't spoken yet.

Els's luck at Harbour Town has been almost as star-crossed as at Augusta. In 2000 he had three straight sub-70 rounds and led by five strokes with 12 holes left before finishing five strokes behind winner Stewart Cink.

Els was again ahead here in the final round a year ago. But he drove out of bounds on the 16th hole for a double bogey, then closed with bogeys on the 17th and 18th holes to tie for 10th place.

Els, 34, expects he'll have plenty more chances for success at Harbour Town -- and at Augusta National. "I don't feel all that terrible," he said, "and we move on."

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