Title puts Els at ease

After losing 3-shot lead, South African survives four-man playoff to win

`It was a lot of hard work'

Sudden-death par beats Levet after Elkington, Appleby had bowed out

2002 British Open

July 22, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GULLANE, Scotland - He is called "The Big Easy" for the way he swings a golf club and the way he approaches life. After what happened yesterday at Muirfield in the final round of the 131st British Open, Ernie Els might need a new nickname to go along with his new trophy, the Claret Jug.

Els won the Open in the hardest of ways - by nearly losing it.

After a disastrous double bogey on the par-3 16th hole caused him to blow what had been a three-stroke lead with five holes to play, Els managed to pull himself together to survive a four-man playoff. Once Australians Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby were eliminated after four holes of aggregate score, Els won on the first hole of sudden death over Thomas Levet of France.

Faced with a seemingly impossible bunker shot on the par-4 18th hole - Els had missed the green from the middle of the fairway - the 32-year-old South African made a delicate recovery and sank a 5-foot putt for par. Levet, who had made his way into the playoff with an eagle on the par-5 17th in regulation to get to 6-under par, bogeyed the sudden-death hole.

When Els' ball disappeared into the cup, he flipped his putter on the green, tossed his cap into the air and raised a pair of triumphant, if tired, arms toward the heavens. The victory was the third major championship of his 13-year career, following U.S. Open titles in 1994 and 1997, and Els said he might not have been able to recover had he lost.

"Walking off 16 [after the double bogey] a lot of things went through my mind," Els said. "I was like, `Is this any way to lose another major? Is this the way you want to be remembered, by screwing up in an Open championship?' I'm pretty hard on myself, and that wasn't one of my finer moments. ... It would have been a very hard loss if I didn't win this jug."

Els had finished tied for second behind Tom Lehman in the 1996 Open at Royal Lytham and to Tiger Woods (by eight shots) at St. Andrews in 2000 - the year Els was runner-up in three of the four majors - but this was his Open to lose. With a two-stroke lead coming into the round, Els found himself three shots clear of the field when he birdied the par-4 12th to reach 8-under.

But after making a terrific bunker shot on the par-3 13th, Els drove into a fairway bunker on the par-4 14th and made bogey. Then, on the par-3 16th, Els hit his tee shot right of the green, then pitched it past the cup and through the green. He then hit a bad chip 10 feet past the cup again and missed for bogey.

It was the only double bogey made on that hole all day.

"Obviously, walking off the 16th green was the lowest point of my entire week," said Els, who fell one stroke behind Elkington, Levet and Appleby at the time. "In normal conditions, I make 3. I made 5 there. And then you turn an easy par-5 into a really hard par-5 because you mess up on 16. All of a sudden, 17 is the most crucial hole of the tournament."

Whatever Els had faced over his career - the 20-hole playoff he won on the second extra hole in the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont over Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts, the back-nine shootout he won in the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional over Montgomerie and Lehman and the one he lost in the 2000 Masters to Vijay Singh - didn't match anything he faced yesterday.

"Every shot I was going to hit the rest of the way was going to be a crucial shot," he said. "I was under a lot of pressure there. I never felt anything like that. I just stuck with my game and hit a really good driver.

"And walking off the 17th green after making 4 [for a birdie], I was still down. I felt, `Now I'm going to make another birdie to win.' My chin wasn't up, I'll say."

Els had a chance to end the tournament in regulation when he hit his tee shot on 18 into the middle of the fairway, but he then left himself a 25-footer for birdie. Elkington was already in at 6-under after missing a 6-footer for birdie to win. Appleby was in as well, having completed a back nine of 5-under 30 and a round of 6-under 65 with a birdie on 18.

When his birdie putt missed, Els started thinking negatively about the playoff.

"The last couple of years, I haven't been good in playoffs," he said. "I've been beaten in playoffs for quite some time. I didn't have a good feeling. I walked out of the scorer's tent, I saw Leizl [his wife] and Jos [Vanstiphout, his sports psychologist] and he tried to get me upbeat and get me going again."

It helped that the first four-man playoff in Open history would be broken up into a pair of twosomes and that Els and Appleby would tee off after Levet and Elkington, whose only major championship came in a playoff win over Montgomerie in the 1995 PGA Championship at Riviera.

"There was another good break," Els said later about teeing off in the second group. "I watched the other guys tee off, and I started to feel a little better as time went on."

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