LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Seven shots back. A 42-year-old overcoming a 32-year-old. A man in control of his game against a guy who needed to find his game not so long ago.
Ernie Els was the underdog in all of these instances Sunday, but that’s why they play the rounds.
The South African fired an improbable 2-under 68 and watched Adam Scott bogey his final four holes to hand the Big Easy a one-shot victory and his second Claret Jug at the 141st Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club.
Will this round be remembered more for Els’ comeback or for Scott’s late collapse?
Here are 5 Things to take away from the final round at the Open Championship:
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1. NOT-SO-GREAT SCOTT: Adam Scott entered Sunday’s final round with a commanding four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell, looking to be in control of his game, mentally and physically.
And for the most part, he looked the part early Sunday. He opened bogey-birdie-bogey, but lost no ground on the field as the wind had turned Royal Lytham into the lion that many expected it to be at the outset of the week.
But he would find his game from No. 4 through No. 14, erasing a bogey at No. 6 with a birdie at No. 14 to remain at 10 under and four shots ahead of the surging Ernie Els.
“I started paying attention (to the leaderboard) around the turn there, 7, 8, 9, 10, and I was obviously in pretty good position but a long way to go,” Scott said. “And I think I played kind of accordingly to that. I hit a lot of good shots, hit a lot of greens. I left a lot of putts short right in the middle today but felt I didn’t need to rush anything at the hole.”
Picking up birdies on any of those holes would have helped late.
Scott started his demise after hitting a greenside bunker at No. 15, from which he failed to get up-and-down. Then there was the sloppy three-putt at No. 16, turning a potential birdie hole into a bogey. And then a long approach into thick rough at No. 17, again failing to get up-and-down.
“It all comes down to the shot into 17 for me that I’m most disappointed with,” Scott said. “At that point, I’m still well in control of the tournament, and I hit a nice shot somewhere to the right of the hole and I can go to the last with the lead still.”
Despite his angst about the 17th, it is the 18th that proved the most costly. He still had a chance to send it to extra holes.
After committing a cardinal sin on a links course – driving the ball into a fairway bunker – Scott had to pitch out with his second shot, leaving his third from well back in the fairway. He hit a fantastic shot to 6 feet under the hole, but couldn’t get the putt to fall, and the collapse was complete.
A solid round had turned into a 5-over 75.
“It came down to hitting – not making a couple of putts on the last four holes. If I make either on 15 or 16, it’s a very different position and a lot more comfortable,” said Scott, who still picked up his best finish in a major.
“And I put myself in a position where I had to hit a great tee shot off the last, and I didn’t hit a great one.”
On a day when he saw his first major title disappear, Scott didn’t seem too down on himself.
“I know I’ve let a really great chance slip through my fingers today. But somehow I’ll look back and take the positives from it,” Scott said. “I don’t think I’ve ever played this well in a major championship, so that’s a good thing for me moving forward. All the stuff I’m doing is going in the right direction. Today is one of those days, and that’s why they call it golf.”
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2. EASY DOES IT, AGAIN: While the comeback was shocking, Els’ winning again shouldn’t be a surprise, considering his 2012 resume.
He lost in a playoff for the Zurich Classic title, had a T-4 at Bay Hill, a T-5 at Transitions, a T-12 at the Shell Houston Open and a ninth-place finish in the U.S. Open.
He has made 12 of 14 cuts and finished in the top 25 in eight of those events. Els is also seventh in the FedEx Cup standings.
This coming on the heels of a year when it looked like Els’ best days were over.
He had only six top-25 finishes in all of 2011 and made just $948,872. He has already eclipsed the $3 million mark in 2012.
“This game is a tough game we play. It’s a physical game. It’s a mental game. You’ve got to have your wits with you. Otherwise you have a missing link and it doesn’t quite all come together,” said Els, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011. “So to play the game as long as I have, for 23 years now as a professional, you’re bound to go through every emotion out there and most of the things happen to you.”
There is no rest for the Open champ though, as Els is scheduled to play the RBC Canadian Open this week. He might be a bit late to the party.
“There’s a golf day for Mike Weir tomorrow in Toronto,” Els said. “Maybe they’ll let me off on that one and I’ll be there Monday evening. I’d love to see the family this evening and maybe try and fly out tomorrow morning. If they want me there, I’ll go tonight still. But I’d love to maybe just be there Monday night.”
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3. COMING UP SHORT: And, no, we aren’t just talking about Tiger Woods’ failure to win a major for the 17th consecutive time. We’re talking about his “game plan,” which called for him to take iron after iron off the tee.
And it proved costly at a hole that he had owned the first three days: the par-4 sixth (the toughest hole on the course). After Woods had made three birdies in three days at No. 6, it seemed to be the difference for Woods on Sunday.
It was not to be.
After a nice 3-wood up the left side of the fairway, Woods says he missed by “1 yard” on his approach and found a greenside bunker that would set off a sequence of shots that likely cost him a shot at the tournament.
Facing a buried lie in the bunker face, Woods thought about his options and decided to try and bank it off the wall, hoping the ball would kick right. It didn’t. The ball ricocheted left, nearly hit Woods and remained in the bunker, on the left edge. Woods faced another awkward shot and nearly had to lie down to play. He got it on the green and then three-putted for triple bogey.
But, it wasn’t just the triple at No. 6 but rather the distances that he left himself on most of his second shots on the par 4s: typically 220 yards or more into the green. While many consider Woods to be one of the best long-iron players in the world, those types of distances don’t bode well for easy birdies or playing in windy weather the likes of what he experienced Sunday at Royal Lytham.
“I finally feel like I’m really healthy, and I’ve got my pop back in my swing. So I’m hitting the ball distances I know I can,” said Woods, who finished T-3 with playing competitor Brandt Snedeker after a 3-over 73 on Sunday. “Unfortunately when I get out here with a little bit of adrenalin, it goes a little bit further, too. It’s a combination of having my strength and my speed back, at the same time playing tournament golf.”
Woods is more than four years removed from his last major-championship victory – 2008 U.S. Open – and his T-3 finish at Royal Lytham marks his best finish since placing second to Y.E. Yang in the ’09 PGA Championship.
“We all go through these phases. Some people, it lasts entire careers. Others are a little bit shorter,” said Woods, who moved to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “Even the greatest players to ever play have all gone through little stretches like this. When your playing careers last 40 and 50 years, you’re going to have stretches like this.”
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4. THAT’S MORE LIKE IT: Royal Lytham had played like a week-in and week-out PGA Tour course over the first three rounds, with Scott and Snedeker tying course records with 6-under 64s and plenty of players posting rounds in the 60s.
But the wind finally showed up Sunday, and Lytham showed its ugly side.
Of the 83 rounds, only 10 players broke par; seven more shot even par.
The last three groups of the tee – Scott/McDowell, Woods/Snedeker and Els/Zach Johnson – were a combined 20 over for the day. They came into the day 41 under through the first three rounds.
The course also produced a 12-over 82 (Andres Romero) and 22 rounds that were equal to or worse than Scott’s 5-over 75.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: World No. 1 Luke Donald shot 1-under 69 on Sunday to quietly pick up a T-5 finish, his best major finish of the season . . . Rory McIlroy (No. 2) and Lee Westwood (No. 3) weren’t as fortunate on Sunday, with McIlroy capping off a rough final three rounds with a 3-over 73 to finish T-60 at 8 over. Meanwhile, Westwood failed to post a round under par, firing a 2-over 72 Sunday to finish T-45 at 6 over. Both players slid down one spot in the OWGR as Woods improved to No. 2 . . . Vijay Singh posted the only bogey-free round on Sunday, picking up 18 pars en route to a 70 and a T-9 finish at even overall . . . Ian Poulter, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Geoff Ogilvy joined Singh at T-9 after each shot 3-under 67 on Sunday . . . Soccer star Carlos Tevez, who plays for Manchester City, caddied for countryman Andres Romero. But after Romero’s closing 12-over 82, Tevez might not be back on that bag for a while . . . Eight of the top 22 finishers were from the United States. England, Australia and South Africa each had two.