SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- When Ernie Els last stepped off the major championship stage, he looked like a big, blond Willy Loman starring in Death of a Green Jacket. Els had the smile. He had the patter. But his dream of winning a Masters, the major he has wanted since he was a young boy, slipped through his grasp and into the raised arms of Phil Mickelson.
Els led by three strokes with five holes to play. He shot a 67 on Sunday at Augusta, one of the biggest Crock-Pots in professional sports. And Els didn't even get in a playoff. Mickelson's birdie at No. 18 gave him a 69 and a one-stroke victory.
There are just four majors a year, and the opportunities to win one come fewer still. There is a special kind of agony reserved for the golfers who come close to fulfilling such a dream and fail. Sometimes it takes years to get over the disappointment. Scott Hoch missed a two-foot putt to win the 1990 Masters, and didn't win again on the PGA Tour for four years.
Sometimes, if you're Els, you pick up where you left off.
The Els who has come to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club for the 104th U.S. Open is ranked second in the world and closing. In a career that has included some 40 victories all over the world, Els is playing as well as he ever has. The disappointment of the Masters has receded.
"When you get so close and you play the way that I did that Sunday," Els said, "Phil just played better than me coming down the stretch. And unlike other majors where I felt like maybe I had something to do with not winning, I was maybe more disappointed in those losses. But this one, I felt good."
Els made himself go to Hilton Head the following week and play the MCI Heritage. "I wanted to get back on the horse," he explained.
That's what Stewart Cink did after his three-putt on the 72nd green at the 2001 U.S. Open. Cink, thinking he needed to make a 15-foot putt to have a chance at a playoff, sent the putt two feet past. Without focusing, he swatted the next putt and missed it. It turned out that if he had made that one, he would have gotten in the playoff after all.
Cink handled it with grace that day. A year later, he posed for Golf World with his pants around his ankles, the ultimate in self-deprecating humor. Here was a guy who understood that you have to move on.
It turns out that he didn't believe a word of it. He couldn't blink away the glare of the bright lights.
"It wasn't that I was having trouble with the fact I almost won the U.S. Open, but didn't win," Cink told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this spring. "It was more that I kind of embarrassed myself in front of the world, and I didn't want to do it again."
It took Cink three years to win again, which he did in April at Hilton Head, beating Ted Purdy in a playoff. Els, a week after his painful loss, finished tied for third, two strokes out of the playoff.
"I don't think it's tough to recover from a major loss when you've won a couple of majors already," Mickelson said, "and Ernie has won a couple of U.S. Opens (1994, 1997) and a British (2002). He has already experienced what it's like to win big tournaments. I don't think it was anywhere near as tough as it would be to accept the loss when, let's say, a Scott Hoch, who is a tremendous player, could have won the Masters. I think those are very tough to come through when you haven't won a major."
Like Els this year, in 1999 Payne Stewart got back on the horse. After leading the 1998 U.S. Open by five shots in the final round, Stewart fell apart. But the two-time major winner responded with a brilliant victory at the 1999 U.S. Open, making a 15-foot par putt at the final hole for a one-stroke victory.
Stewart's victory came at the expense of Mickelson, who had it happen again at the 2001 PGA, when David Toms got up and down for par from the fairway to prevent a playoff with Mickelson.
The one prominent exception to what Mickelson said is Mickelson himself. After both major championship defeats, Mickelson picked himself up and sallied on. He won seven months after the Open loss, in San Diego, and five months after the PGA loss, at the Bob Hope.
"I never really doubted that it would happen, but again, I'm looking at it a little bit different," Mickelson said. "I'm looking more big-picture. I want to try to build on the Masters victory. It was a wonderful, exciting moment for me, and I don't want it to be the pinnacle per se. I want it to be kind of a stepping-stone to playing at that level more often in majors. I enjoyed it so much that I'm hoping I'm able to do it some more."
It takes a well-disciplined mind to maintain the focus of that big picture. Mickelson and Els have spent the last three months proving they have it. Arriving at Shinnecock Hills as two of the favorites for the U.S. Open is pretty much all the proof anyone needs.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.