In the end, it was one of the most emotional Opens of them all. The 42-year-old Ernie Els, who won his second Open 10 years after his first, had laughed out loud when he holed a 12-footer on the home green to go to 7-under par. Perfect putt though it was, he could not believe his luck.
When he left the green, he was hoping, at best, for a playoff. After all, his good friend, Adam Scott, had been six ahead of him at the turn and still had shots in hand.
Out on the course, Scott had just made the kind of birdie on 14 – he holed from 15 feet – to suggest he soon would be holding the Claret Jug. All day he had been careful with his putts rather than aggressive but he had rammed this 15-footer into the hole and it was precisely what the crowd wanted to see. This was the stuff.
The Australian could afford to drop a shot at the 15th but he could not accommodate so easily what happened at the next. Though Gary Player had talked on Saturday of how the long putter is unfair in the way it takes nerves out of the equation, Scott missed from three feet.
His lead was cut to two and the massive roar that greeted Els’ holed putt at the 18th came as no less of a blow. Scott composed himself to crack a good drive from the 17th and as Steve Williams, his caddie, marched out with his long and confident stride, there was the feeling that the two of them were going to be all right.
Then came what Scott would describe as the killer blow; a second that he turned over to leave himself chipping out of the heavy stuff to the left of the green. The recovery was pretty good in the circumstances but he dropped a third shot in a row to mount the 18th tee on the same 7-under tally as Els.
At this point, Els was standing on the practice putting green having turned down the R&A’s invitation to watch Scott’s finish on television. He ate a sandwich, he talked to his wife on the phone and, throughout, he looked shocked and bemused in turn.
As he settled down to practise his putting – his caddie, Ricci Roberts, had arranged a circle of six footers for him – so news came of how Scott had driven into sand at the last.
It was one more of those Lytham bunkers that, earlier in the day, had served only to interrupt the flow of play and drain the afternoon of much of its excitement. All Scott could do was to exit the trap and hit for the green with his third. He was bang on target but left himself with a 10-footer to force a playoff.
Once again, his long putter let him down. He went down on his knees as the ball missed and shook his head at what might have been.
Back on the putting green, Els and Roberts had a brief hug but, thrilled though Els was for himself, he was shaken to the core by what had happened to Scott.
At the prize-giving, he talked about the importance of Nelson Mandela in his life, but first he addressed his “buddy,” Adam.
“Scotty,” he said, “you’re a great player, a great friend. You’re going to win many of these things with your talent.”
Afterwards, Els would add that he had seen everything in his 23 years on Tour and had been on the losing end rather more than he had been on the winning end.
“I just hope,” he said of Scott, “that he doesn’t beat himself up as I have done to myself in the past. Thankfully, he’s young enough, at 32. I’ve won four majors but he can win more.”
Back in 1996, Scott had shed tears as he watched on TV as his great hero, Greg Norman, collapsed down the stretch against Nick Faldo at Augusta. On Sunday, Scott did not cry. Norman, he said, had always been as admirable in the way he handled himself in defeat as much as victory: “He set us a good example.”
In his post-round interview, Els touched on the degree to which he had been affected by his 10-year-old son’s autism.
“Emotionally and mentally, I’m in a better place, now,” he said. “Coming out publicly helped.”
He and his wife, Liezl, have raised in the region of £10 million for their Els for Autism Foundation and are shortly to open a new centre in Florida.
Els said he made lots of his putts – he had four birdies in his inward 32 – with Ben in mind.
“He likes the flight of the ball and the sound,” said the winner. “He would have been getting very excited and I wanted to make him really excited.”
Sherylle Calder, the sports scientist who has been working with Els on his hand-eye coordination, with particular reference to his putting, was another to get a special mention. The two of them had spent endless hours on the green, with Calder giving him “a whole new outlook.”
His fellow players laughed at him for going to such lengths “but to come through and make the kind of pressure putts I was making today was the whole goal.”
Graeme McDowell came to grief at the 11th where he hit into a copse. As he was driven back in a buggy to hit his fourth, he thought to himself, “There goes my Open.”
Afterward, he could only console himself with the thought of how much he had learned, both in fading in the last round both in the US Open and at Lytham: “It’s the kind of education you can’t buy.”
Yet on Sunday, his own disappointment was tempered by what happened to his playing companion, Scott. “What can you say? I told him that he’s going to be a great champion but, for now, he’s heartbroken.”
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IN THE MAY 13, 2013 ISSUE