Big Easy: Ernie Els celebrates winning The Open Championship after a thrilling finish to the event
Old friend: Els gets reacquainted with the Claret Jug
This was Greg Norman at the Masters in 1996 all over again. This was truly heart-wrenching for anyone with Australian blood and for Adam Scott’s English relatives who once had a home at the far end of Royal Lytham, overlooking the ninth green.
A championship the 32-year-old from Adelaide had held in the palm of his hand for most of the afternoon slipped inexorably from his grasp in the final hour.
How does the poor soul come back from this, from four successive bogeys to finish and a place on the wall of Open infamy? He thought he would be alongside Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Norman and Ian Baker-Finch, the other Aussie winners of this event. Instead he finds himself alongside Jean van de Velde and Doug Sanders.
Just like his great idol Norman at Augusta, Scott accepted his harsh fate with consummate sportsmanship when inside he must have been dying on his feet. If there was any consolation, it must have been the identity of the man to whom he handed the Claret Jug, a man who knows all about the demons that stalk this cruel game.
Over the past 10 years since his last Open victory, Ernie Els has been through it all. Off the course he lost a year of his career to a cruciate knee injury. His son Ben was diagnosed with autism.
Ernie's autism fight goes on
There was a real human story behind the golfing one as Ernie Els became Open champion again at Royal Lytham.
Between his two victories 10 years apart Els and his wife Liezl have become major fund-raisers after the discovery when he was seven that their son Ben has autism.
They moved their main home from Wentworth to Florida and established the 'Els for Autism Foundation'.
They also launched a campaign to raise £20million for a Centre of Excellence, committing £4million of their own money. The land is now bought and it is hoped it will open next year.
On his website Els writes about the years he and Liezl suspected something was wrong with Ben, now nine.
'I mean, there's a process that every kid goes through. Crawl at nine months, walk at 12 months, and then start talking and so on.
'With Ben we started thinking "Why is he not crawling, why is he not walking, why is he not looking me in the eye?" - things like that. We soon discovered he was quite severely touched by autism.
'One in 110 children is affected by autism and that was perhaps the most shocking thing about all of this. It hits the whole family hard.
'For a long time you are trying to figure out what just happened to my life. You feel sorry for yourself and for your kid and for your family.
'And the tragedy is that even in this day and age, the kid who has autism is often forgotten about. The feeling is that he's almost a waste of time, which says a lot more about society than it does the child. It's heart-breaking.
'Years from now people may remember me as a golfer and a major champion, but I'd like also to be remembered as somebody who took the issue of autism and did something with it.
'The rest of my life I'll be fighting this thing.'
On it, he lost his confidence so completely on the greens there simply seemed no way back. He was miserable and tetchy, far removed from the Big Easy of legend. The final straw seemed to be when he was not good enough to get into the field for the Masters in April.
Yet, from somewhere, the people who know and love Ernie managed to summon in him an ounce of self-belief. He turned to the belly putter — ‘I might as well cheat like the rest of them,’ was his explanation — and gradually the smile returned to his face.
And so one 42-year-old in Darren Clarke beloved by the public because of his prodigious gifts, love of a pint, and the fact the joys and despair of the game are written in the lines of his face had given way to another of the same age and the same DNA.
The manner in which the two completed their triumphs, however, could not have been further removed. For much of the final round Els was a long way from the business end of the leader board. At the opening hole the cheer he received from those occupying the grandstand behind the green was the most vociferous among the final groups. But after two holes Els had drifted seven shots behind Scott. Even at the turn he was still six in arrears. Scott was playing so well there appeared only one outcome.
Just as the rest of the contenders picked up strokes, they dropped them again. There was Graeme McDowell, out in the last group on the last day for the second successive major. Every time the Northern Irishman took one step forward he took one back. Three successive bogeys around the turn killed his chances and he would eventually settle for a tie for fifth.
We keep waiting for the old Tiger to show up on the final day of a major and so far it remains in vain. He slipped out of contention after running up a seven at the sixth, his first triple bogey in nine years at a major championship. All week the fabled bunkers at Lytham had been a talking point and here they claimed their most famous victim. Woods took two blows to get out and missed a four-foot putt.
SPORTSMAIL'S OPEN MEMORIES
Best moment for me was seeing the joy on 62-year-old Tom Watson’s face after he holed a long putt on Friday to make the cut. It will be a sad day indeed when he finally waves goodbye to the game.
I'll never forget the moment when Greg Owen, who hit an albatross here 11 years ago, struck another great shot on the 18th in his second round, holing from more than 100 yards to make an eagle — and the cut.
A favourite moment from my favourite player of all time — the putt which Tom Watson holed across the 18th green on Friday and the tumultuous reaction of the gallery to his making the cut.
Interviewing Tom Watson after practice on Tuesday was amazing. Listening to a legend talk in such a gentle, well-mannered way reminds you that high-level sport does not have to make monsters of everyone.
All week he had adopted a conservative strategy reminiscent of his victory at Hoylake in 2006. There is nothing wrong with giving up length off the tee but you have to be straight. Two successive bogeys at the 13th and 14th holes were the result of poor tee shots with his driving iron. Short and crooked is no good to anyone.
While Woods, McDowell, and Brandt Snedeker made their mistakes, Els took their place at the head of a seemingly vain pursuit. He birdied the 10th and 12th holes to pull within four.
Then came one of those passages of play that sum up why people follow sport. Scott bogeyed the 15th hole and missed from no more than three feet at the 16th.
Down the last, the packed grandstands rose to acclaim Els and then roared their approval when he knocked in a 10-foot birdie putt, a noise that must have chilled the heart of Scott. Now he had to par the last two holes to win, a formidable task indeed when the biggest trophy in the game is on the line and a 20mph wind is blowing.
As if that was not enough, the fates conspired against him. At the 17th a tugged iron could have finished in a tight lie by the green but rolled an extra yard into an impossible spot. Another bogey.
What was his experienced caddie Steve Williams doing allowing him to play a three-wood off the 18th tee? It brought the left-hand fairway bunkers into play and he duly finished in one.
Credit Scott for a third shot of some courage, given the emotions that must have been swirling inside. But not even the controversial long-handled putter could help with the nerves when the requirement was to knock in an eight-foot putt for a play-off.
On the practice putting green, big Ernie could tell by the noise from the crowd that he had won his fourth major. Second at Lytham in 1996 and third at the same venue in 2001, he had finally reached the summit.
This was a triumph for perseverance, therefore, a dogged refusal to accept his best days lay in the past, and at the end, following a winner’s speech full of warmth and respect, he put an arm around the crestfallen Scott’s shoulder.
A big man in every sense. A big man to the end.
Four things we've learned, by Ian Ladyman
1. Tiger isn't ready to roar yet
The former world No 1 can still play some awe-inspiring golf but when it comes to the final push there appears to be something missing.
2. Links golf remains important
Some say that links courses need help from the weather if they are to withstand assaults from the world’s best golfers. This week proved otherwise.
3. Don't turn the golf off early
Few sports can turn as quickly as golf can. Yesterday was 90 per cent pre-season football friendly and 10 per cent sporting drama.
4. Lee Westwood needn't worry yet
Some think the 39-year-old’s best chances of a major have gone. But Ernie Els — who is three years older — showed age is no barrier to Open glory.
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