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Els puts aside missed Masters to compete

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Ernie Els had an unusual Masters week.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, he chased sport fish instead of the green jacket.

Els had qualified for 18 consecutive Masters, yet missed Augusta National for the first time since 1993.

Some players might've avoided the TV. Not Els, who watched from his home in Jupiter, Fla., and cheered on the action like most golf fans around the world.

"It was weird being home," he said Wednesday. "But it gave me fresh energy to try and get back there next time."

His first chance starts Thursday when Els tees off at the RBC Heritage.

World No. 1 Luke Donald, defending champion Brandt Snedeker and Masters third-place finisher Matt Kuchar are also competing in the first PGA Tour event since Bubba Watson won the Masters in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen.

Els has liked the way he's played this year and had hoped to score a victory during the season's first few months to get him back to Augusta.

He nearly pulled it off, too, finishing fifth behind Luke Donald at the Transitions and fourth in back of Tiger Woods at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

Els was a major player at Augusta from 2000 to 2004, never finishing worse than sixth and twice leaving as runner up — to Woods in 2000 and to Phil Mickelson in 2004.

Els' game slid there his last seven appearances, missing the cut three times and never finishing better than his tie for 18th in 2010.

He filled his Masters week with some rest, a little practice and even a fishing trip.

"I tried to get a sailfish," he said. "I didn't get a sailfish, but I got some other stuff."

Els hopes to win the RBC Heritage after several near misses: He's got seven top 10s in 12 appearances.

He held a two-stroke lead with three holes to go in 2003 before driving out of bounds and missing out on a playoff. Els' last best chance came in 2007 until Boo Weekley chipped in on the 71st and 72nd holes to win the first of his two straight RBC Heritage titles.

Els is looking forward to this week and hopes he can show a form that will get him back to Augusta in 2013.

"It's a part of my life, whether I'm there or not," he said.

Kuchar, who earned more than $9 million in 2010 and 2011, was tied for the Masters lead after a short eagle putt on the 15th hole. But a bad tee shot on the par-3 16th led to bogey and Kuchar wound up two shots out of the playoff. Watson won his first major on the second playoff hole.

"I watched it. I was very excited for my countryman Louis playing really great," said Els, of South Africa. "I was really glad for Bubba."

Like Els, Kuchar is also focused on what's ahead this week at Harbour Town.

"I want to win this tournament," Kuchar said. "And the more I can make every tournament really important, I think it makes prep for the majors much easier."

Donald hopes to improve his showing at Harbour Town. He was second here in 2009, third in 2010, then lost to Snedeker in a playoff last year when a tournament victory would've elevated him to No. 1.

Donald subsequently reached that spot and, with No. 2 Rory McIlroy, No. 3 Lee Westwood and No. 4 Watson all off, he is fairly secure on top, win or lose this week.

Donald felt edgy with a one-stroke lead and the chance to become No. 1 entering the final round.

"I remember being pretty nervous come Sunday because I knew what was on the line," he said.

Now, Donald can concentrate on getting back to the successful golf that won him the Transitions Championship in Tampa, Fla., last month. Donald said the key here, as always, is hitting some of the smallest greens on the PGA Tour.

"Because of that you need a good short game," he said.

Webb Simpson (No. 13) and Bill Haas (No. 18) are the other two golfers in the top 20 competing at Harbour Town.

Watson, the Masters champion, likely earned as many fans for his emotional showing after the final putt dropped. He broke down in tears almost instantly and continued to cry on his mother's shoulders on the 10th green.

Aaron Baddeley, one of Watson's close friends, said the display was just Bubba being himself.

"Bubba wears his heart on his sleeve for everyone to see," said Baddeley, the 2006 RBC Heritage winner who stuck around to hug Watson after the Masters win.

Kuchar, Donald and the rest almost didn't have a tournament to come to before RBC and The Boeing Co. joined forces to back the event the next five years.

Boeing is the RBC Heritage's presenting sponsor.

"There's a whole new excitement for the tournament," Snedeker said.