Ernie Els lets a golden opportunity slips through his hands on the back-nine

SAN FRANCISCO — Ernie Els will never admit it, but his major championship window continues to close with every passing year.

At the age of 42, he still has some good golf left in him, but as we've seen in the last couple of year, he's had some trouble making big putts and closing out tournaments when it matters.

A three-time major winner with 64 professional, there's no question he'll go down as one of the best players in the sport. But over the last few years, we've started to see the slow demise of a golfer who used to have ice water in his veins when it came to pressure-packed situations.

[Related: Webb Simpson comes from four shots back to win the U.S. Open]

Els always seemed unflappable, his cool demeanor exuding a swagger you'd expect to see from a major champion. That's exactly why his downfall recently has been so tough to watch. There was the missed four-footer at the Transitions Championship earlier this year, and the gut-wrenching playoff loss to Jason Dufner at the Zurich Classic. And we haven't even touched on his travails trying to qualify for this year's Masters.

The longer you watched Els struggle to get back on top, the more you started to believe that he likely wouldn't be a major championship contender in the future. His game and nerves seemed to be on the outs. But for a split-second on Sunday afternoon, Els looked like he was on the verge of turning back the clock, after he dropped an eagle putt on the par-4 seventh to get to 1-over for the tournament and within one shot of the lead.

Tom Watson was 59 when he almost won at Turnberry, but when Els walked off the green headed for the eight tee, you got the sense that it could be one of his last legitimate chances to win a major championship.

Els went on to give the momentum right back with bogey on the eighth and ninth holes, but he rebounded three holes later with a birdie on the par-4 12th, setting up potentially memorable finish.

But it wasn't meant to be. Els went 2-over in the final six holes, including an awful bogey on the par-5 16th, due to a poor approach shot and chip, that sealed his fate. He went on to finish at 4-over for the tournament.

"Well, I'm disappointed right now," Els said.  "I felt I had a chance all day, I eagled 7 and I had a mystery on this 8th hole.  I came up well short and bogeyed that and 3‑putted 9 to give my two shots back."

If missing out on a potential playoff with his poor play down the stretch wasn't hard enough, Els' ninth-place finish had him one spot away from getting an automatic invite to next year's Masters. The Top 8 at the U.S. Open received exemptions to Augusta, a place Els missed out on this year.

"I felt I had a lot of chances, did what I needed to do, it's just I miscued there on 16 and that cost me," Els said. "And I wanted to get, try and get in the playoff, but again I didn't hit the shots coming in, basically."

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