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Els Wins but Victory is Bittersweet

By: Tony Dear


With an unutterably brilliant back-nine 32, and a thunderbolt putt on the 72nd green in his 22nd Open Championship appearance, Ernie Els captured a fourth major championship victory that only the most devout of his followers thought would ever come.

Els, playing in the third-to-last group of the day, was forced to wait 20 minutes after making his birdie bomb on the 413-yard closing hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes to see if Adam Scott, who had begun the day with a four-shot lead, could join him at 7-under-par 273 and create a four-hole playoff. But the Australian missed a 10-foot putt for par on the 18th, and sunk to his knees knowing he had blown his best chance yet of winning a major championship and realizing his massive potential.

Scott's final bogey, largely the result of a pulled drive into a typically uncompromising fairway bunker from which he had no choice but to exit sideways, was his fourth in a row and saw the four-shot advantage he still held on the 15th tee turn into the one-shot deficit he will surely agonize over until he does at last win a Grand Slam event, but probably beyond that, too.

For Els, making a phone call, eating a sandwich and rehearsing a few putts on the practice green, the groans from the crowd responding to Scott's miss were bittersweet. Yes, he had claimed a second Claret Jug to sit beside the one he earned at Muirfield 10 years ago, but it had come at the expense of his good friend and Presidents Cup teammate.

As his long-time caddie and friend Ricci Roberts congratulated him, Els said they needed to "talk to Adam." In his post-round interviews and at the prize ceremony where he honored his country's President Nelson Mandela, who recently turned 94, Els gave Scott all due respect, saying he would go on to win more than the four majors Els has. It surely won't take long for the "Big Easy" to start enjoying the size of his achievement, however, especially given how poor his record of the last 18 months had been.

Reaching a high of No. 68 in the world might be considered a triumph for a pro journeyman who has trudged the world's fairways anonymously for two decades or more. But for a player like Els, after spending a total of nine weeks at No. 1 in the world in 1998 and '99, and 758 weeks among the top 10, falling that low represents a disastrous nadir for a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. But that is precisely where the 42-year-old found himself at the beginning of this year.

After winning at Bay Hill in 2010, the South African's form nosedived. He managed only one top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in 2011 (and that at a Fall Series event) and could do no better than 16th in Europe, where he had been an honorary life member of the Tour since 1999. In March he finished with two bogeys at the Transitions Championship in Florida to throw away the one-shot edge he had squeezed out with three holes to go, and a final-round 75 at Bay Hill saw him finish fourth when an even-par 72 would have been enough to tie for second, move him back inside the world's top 50, and earn his 19th straight invitation to the Masters. Missing Augusta obviously hurt and, in addition to being laughed at and thinking himself a fool, certainly acted as a major motivator for him to get back to his lofty position among the game's elite.

After a solid opening 67 at a strangely wind- and rain-less Royal Lytham, Els remarked that he wished he was allowed to put some money on himself so beautifully was he striking the ball and seeing the lines of his putts, an upshot of working with "visual skills coach" Sherylle Calder, whose method of improving an individual's concentration, peripheral vision and focus has benefited the South African Rugby Union team and numerous other high-profile sports stars.

Scott was around in a best-of-the-day 64, a shot clear of Belgian Nicholas Colsaerts, who was attempting to go one better than countryman Flory Van Donck - the Open runner-up in 1956 and '59; Zach Johnson, winner of the previous week's John Deere Classic; and Scotsman Paul Lawrie, who won the Claret Jug in 1999 and is looking good for a return to the European Ryder Cup team in September.

The field took advantage of the benign conditions and a course nearly saturated from weeks of steady rain to average 71.58, with all 156 players (including Mardan Mamat, who was disqualified following his round on Friday after signing for an incorrect scorecard) breaking 80, the first time that happened at a major since the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale. Michael Hoey's 79 was Thursday's highest score.

Three rounds in the 80s were recorded Friday, restoring just a little of Royal Lytham's dignity. But in conditions similar to those Thursday, Brandt Snedeker again went bogey-free and followed up his opening 66 with a 64 that saw him equal Nick Faldo's record-low 36-hole total of 130 (Faldo was 12-under at Muirfield in 1992, Snedeker 10-under).

Scott was one back after a 67, and four behind in third was Tiger Woods, who had described some sections of the lush rough as unplayable but was doing his best to avoid it by hitting stinger long-irons off the majority of tees - this despite saying on Wednesday that, unlike at Hoylake in 2006 when he hit just one driver on the parched course all week, he would need to hit a few more 3-woods and drivers because the course was "much wetter and the bunkers staggered differently." Indeed, with his somewhat conservative approach Woods was hitting 88 percent of the fairways (he finished the tournament at 82.14 percent).

Fourth at 5-under was Denmark's Thorbjorn Olesen, whose second-round 66 gave him a Saturday tee time with his hero Woods, and completing the top five tied on 4-under were Lawrie, 2012 U.S. Open runner-up Graeme McDowell, Players champion Matt Kuchar, South African Thomas Aiken, and a two-time winner on this year's PGA Tour, Jason Dufner. Els, meanwhile, was seven back at 137.

Notables missing a cut that fell at 3-over 143 were 2001 and 1996 Lytham winners David Duval and Tom Lehman; Paul Casey, who had been 3-under through 12 holes Thursday but finished at 11-over Friday evening; Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, defending champion Darren Clarke and Phil Mickelson, who had shot 129 in the middle two rounds at the Scottish Open the week before, eventually tying for 16th, but whose game, nerve, touch and focus had clearly gone astray somewhere between Inverness and Blackpool. An opening 73 meant Lefty needed something in the mid-60s to make it to the weekend. Instead he shot 78 and did nothing to harm his unsatisfactory record at the Open Championship - two top 10s in 19 tries.

Lee Westwood, one of the pre-tournament favorites, scraped into the weekend on the number as did five-time Open champion Tom Watson, who did so only after sinking a 40-foot foot birdie putt on the 36th hole. After an opening 67, Ulsterman Rory McIlroy appeared to be returning to form but a second-round 75 took him out of the equation. And after rounds of 70 and 68, world No. 1 Luke Donald qualified safely, albeit eight shots behind Snedeker.

Round 3, "Moving Day," saw Scott dig his feet in at the top of the leaderboard with a fine 68 that beat playing partner Snedeker by five. The Tennessean's 73 would actually have been a lot worse had he not finished the round with two late birdies. "They salvaged what would have been a horrific round into a pretty awful round," he said.

Elsewhere, Zach Johnson shot a splendid 66 to move back into the top 10, and McDowell posted a 67 to reach 7-under for the tournament. Els had a 68 to move to 5-under, six back of Scott. Woods trod water with a 70; Aiken and Olesen each shot 71, while moving slowly out of contention were Kuchar, who shot 72, and Dufner (73). Heading the wrong way a whole lot quicker was Lawrie, who compiled a nasty 76. "Never, ever, ever have I misjudged so many putts," he told the press afterward. "It was just frightening. I'm talking about five or six feet past from 30 feet. I don't even know what I shot. What did I shoot?"

The night before the final round, Britain's forlorn meteorologists (one hopes their pay is not results-based) forecast a little wind and, fair enough, the flags did flutter a little at various times throughout the day. But there were never enough breezes to drastically alter the playing characteristics of the course, nor seriously affect any player's game plan. Woods stuck to his irons off the tee (he used the driver just four times in the first 54 holes), while Scott continued to swing it well enough to brave the driver and average close to 320 yards off the tee.

Els likewise hit it solidly all day (he would finish the week first in GIR at over 79 percent) but was still six back after bogeying the ninth. On the back nine, however, he began to roll the ball like he did back in the day, confidently holing out for birdies at the 10th, 12th and 14th while thinking of his son Ben who has autism and who, Els said, would be back at home watching on TV. He made par on the tough 15th then pulled off a cunning chip shot between two bunkers beside the 16th green to save another par. It was a shot that bought to mind Seve Ballesteros's chip on the 72nd hole of the 1976 Open at Birkdale, and seemed to rekindle the fire Seve had burned so brightly at Lytham where he won the Open twice, if only for a moment.

After a par at the always difficult 17th, Els came to the 18thneeding a birdie to post 273 and have any hope of catching Scott. His approach left him 15 feet left of the cup and he rattled home a left-to-right breaking putt for the birdie. The roar must have affected Scott, though he insisted after the round nerves had not got the best of him. "I was surprisingly calm the whole way 'round," he said. "I was a little nervous on the first tee but less so than Saturday. I probably spent up all my nerves over the 24 hours leading up to today. It's funny, I definitely worked myself up a little bit at times, but once I was out there I felt completely in control."

Scott will no doubt do his best to draw on what positives he can from what was an ultimately devastating result, but for many it was an altogether happier event. Donald may not have won and was never really in the hunt, but he did at least finish in the top five, which world No. 1s are supposed to do at majors. Snedeker tied the low-36 hole score at the Open and finished tied for third after missing the cut at his first three Open Championships. Olesen finished in the top 10 and didn't flinch while playing in the company of Woods on Saturday when he shot a respectable 71 (he shot 74 in the final round). Colsaerts also finished in the top 10 after closing with another superb 65 (he had shot 77-72 on Friday and Saturday). Vijay Singh scored his first top 10 at a major since the 2006 U.S. Open.

Fifty-two-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, the 1989 champion, finished tied for ninth and McIlroy did his PR no harm at all by hitting a teenage fan in the head with an errant drive at the 15th Thursday, then setting the victim and a friend up at a hotel for the night and giving them some money for food. "I didn't want him sleeping the night in a tent [as originally planned] when he's got a massive gash in the side of his head," said McIlroy. "I put him and his mate up for the night and gave them a bit of cash - a hundred and something quid - to go for a bit of food. It was the least I could do. If someone gave me a big hole in my head, I wouldn't be too happy. No camping for me. I much prefer hotels."

The Irishman would have preferred to finish higher than a tie for 60th of course, but he did at least make the cut in a summer when he's missed more than he's made, so the week wasn't a total washout. And though Woods will be disappointed with his tie for third, he did at least climb to No. 2 when the world rankings were released Monday morning.

Then there is the course. Royal Lytham has never enjoyed anything like the same affection as some of its Open rota brethren, specifically the Old Course at St. Andrews, Turnberry or Muirfield. But yet again it produced a quality winner (to go with Bobby Jones, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Bob Charles, Tony Jacklin, Gary Player, Ballesteros twice, Lehman and Duval) and attracted numerous compliments from the field.

You can't over-praise Lytham, Locke had said in 1952. And sure enough, despite the horrendous rough that had some fearing a repeat of the carnage at Carnoustie in 1999, and standing water in some of the bunkers that the grounds crew tried to pump but which returned because the water table was so high, the players were almost unanimous in their admiration for its terrific challenge. "You just have to look at the list of former champions to see they are all wonderful ball-strikers," Tiger said Tuesday. "It's a real test."

Richie Ramsay, a Scot who knows a thing or two about links courses, said it was perfect and set up exactly as an Open venue should be. "It makes the best players rise to the top," he noted.

Belly putters also had a good time of it, with Els and Scott both anchoring the butt end of their flat stick somewhere above their trouser belt. Those that despise the use of long putters obviously didn't care to see their success on the greens and were doubtless heartened to read Monday morning that the R&A and USGA were "poised to take definite action" to resolve the long-running controversy.

Els, who has condemned their use in the past saying it is cheating, will heed the new rule if and when it does appear but, for now, will celebrate his victory without giving it a second thought.

After Tom Watson finished runner-up at the 2009 Open Championship at age 60, golf historians called for a reassessment of his career. The eight-time major champion was already one of the greatest who ever played the game, but by coming so close to winning a record-equaling sixth Claret Jug when 14 years older than Tom Morris Sr. - the oldest winner of the oldest major championship - some said his contribution to the game should be seen in a whole new light.

Els isn't nearly as old as Watson, nor is he quite as great . . . yet. But in the space of just a few months he has gone from suspecting his major championship file had been closed to contending at the U.S. Open and winning the Open Championship, thus becoming only the sixth player (after Walter Hagen, Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Woods) to win the U.S. (1994, '97) and British Opens (2002, '12) twice.

Consider his case well and truly reopened.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.