LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Whoever said “golf was a funny old game” might have been thinking of the 141st Open Championship at Royal Lytham.
“Bizarre” doesn’t even begin to describe how Ernie Els got his hands on the old Claret Jug for a second time.
“It’s just crazy, crazy, crazy getting here, a crazy game,” Els said.
If you thought you’d seen everything in golf then this Open Championship proved you haven’t. Once again a major championship unfolded in a way no one would have scripted.
Ten years after winning the Open Championship at Muirfield, Els became the “champion golfer of the year” and won his fourth career major – despite Adam Scott having both hands on the Claret Jug with a four-shot lead with four to play.
Then the Australian went into the mother of all meltdowns.
Coming off a birdie at No. 14, Scott was 10 under with a four-shot lead standing on the 15th tee. Scott bogeyed the last four holes to hand the trophy to the South African. It was reminiscent of Ed Sneed in the 1979 Masters, when he bogeyed the last three holes and lost in a playoff to Fuzzy Zoeller.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ve seen a lot of things happen,” Els said. “I just felt that the golf course is such if you just doubt it a little bit, it was going to bite you. There’s too many bunkers, too much trouble, and there was a bit of a breeze. So I felt I was going to hit the shots and I felt I still felt I had a chance.”
He took it when he closed with a birdie at the 72nd hole to move to 7 under. The victory is sweeter because many people had doubted his ability to win the titles that really counted. Even he doubted his own ability.
“I think I’ve been in such a negative mode for a while,” Els said. “Last year I thought I had no chance. Last year was really a pretty big hole.”
Els began the week as a 80-1 outsider with some bookmakers, which shows how far down golf’s pecking order he had fallen. In fact, he was still considered a 25-1 long-shot at the start of the final round. Six shots off the lead, the South African seemed destined to fall short in a second straight major championship. He finished 9th in last month’s U.S. Open, just three shots behind Webb Simpson.
Conventional wisdom said Els didn’t possess the same putting stroke that drove him to three majors, that he didn’t have the nerves to handle the game within the game.
Work with putting coach Sherylle Calder has made the difference. She has helped him get back in the winner’s circle. The South African is holing the putts that really matter. That was obvious with the 15-footer he holed for birdie on the last.
The South African began the year by being snubbed by the Masters after 18 straight appearances. Looks like the powers-that-be at Augusta don’t know their onions. Hopefully they will admit mea culpa when Els turns up next spring to take his place in the field on merit.
Scott will be at Augusta, too. Whether or not he can bounce back from this quickly remains to be seen.
“It’s tough,” Scott said. “I can’t justify anything that I’ve done out here. I didn’t finish the tournament well. But next time? I’m sure there will be a next time.”
At age 32, there is bound to be. Els was magnanimous enough to acknowledge Scott’s loss, at the same time encouraging him to take the positives out of his defeat.
“I’m so happy that I’ve won,” Els said. “But I’ve been on the other end more times than I’ve actually been on the winning end. It’s not a good feeling. I really said to him (Adam), ‘I’m sorry how things turned out.’ I told him that I’ve been there many times and you’ve just got to bounce back quickly. Don’t let this thing linger.
“Thankfully he’s young enough. He’s 32 years old. He’s got the next 10 years that he can win more than I’ve won. I’ve won four now; I think he can win more than that.”
He can. As this championship proved, anything is possible in this crazy game.