Before pinpointing the strengths of winner Ernie Els at the British Open, it makes intriguing conversation to examine the adventures of Rocco Mediate in the same championship.
How important is putting? Ask Mediate, who tied for first in greens in regulation at the Open, yet tied for 47th in the tournament. Mediate finished nine strokes behind Els even though he hit 10 more greens in regulation (56 to 46).
This would indicate that Mediate must have suffered the heebie jeebies with his putter. Truer words were never spoken, as Mediate was dead last in putting. Nobody in the 131st British Open took more putts than Mediate (34, 33, 34 and 34 – 135 in his four rounds).
Els, in contrast, was a magician at converting birdies and saving pars. He recorded 28, 23, 31 and 29 putts in his four trips around Muirfield, fewer putts than anyone else in the championship. This, more than anything, propelled him to victory.
“I putted beautifully,” Els said in one of the event’s great understatements. For the record, he used a TaylorMade Rossa putter.
It is rare that the winner of a major championship finishes so low in greens in regulation – Els tied for 57th, hitting 63.8 percent – but this points to another of his attributes. All week he was resilient and determined.
There was no better example of this than after the par-3 16th hole in the fourth round. Els mis-hit a chip shot and sent the ball over the green. He failed to get up-and-down from there and took a double bogey, dropping a shot behind the leaders.
“I was just about mentally gone,” he said, although realizing that fact helped Els to gather himself. He followed with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 17th and a two-putt par on the par-4 18th.
In the scheduled four-hole playoff, he hit all four greens in regulation and two-putted each for par. He must have grown tired of all those two-putts, because he one-putted the fifth and final playoff hole for the victory.
Except for putting, Els had average statistics: He tied for 18th in fairways hit (he found all 14 in the first round, then hit 10, 9 and 9 the rest of the way). He was 10th in driving distance (278.4-yard average), although driving distance was irrelevant because of the heavy rough and the necessity of driving the ball straight. The long-hitting Tiger Woods, who hit only two or three drivers a round, finished 48th in driving distance (264.4 yards).
For Els, the victory was sweet vindication for major championship preparation that always seemed to come up short. Since winning his second U.S. Open title in 1997, Els has been totally overshadowed by Woods.
“I played my best, and it wasn’t good enough,” Els said after a fifth-place tie at this year’s Masters. “I guess I have to play better.”
He did play better. And Woods played worse. In this era, both those components seem necessary for victory. Els got his British Open, joining Johnny Miller and Tony Jacklin as modern players who have won the two Opens but neither of the other two major championships (Masters and PGA).
Also crucial to Els was the break he received on the back nine of Saturday’s weather-plagued round. He was reeling from a 40 on the front nine, but rebounded with 32 on the back after the rain stopped and the wind died down. He birdied 16 and 17, then parred 18 to salvage a 72 for the day. Woods, of course, stumbled to an 81.
For years, Els has been known as one of the best sand players in the game, so perhaps it was fitting that he ended this British Open playoff with an up-and-down from a tricky lie in a greenside bunker at 18. Even more impressive was his up-and-down from a bunker at 13 during regulation play Sunday.
“The one on 13, I’m still amazed I got it out of there and almost holed it,” Els said. “I’ve been in the road bunker at St. Andrews, and it reminded me a lot of the road bunker. I felt I had a shot at it to get it out.”
He almost knocked it in the hole. It was a sign of very good things – and a claret jug – to come.