At 32 Adam Scott could not see a way to lose. Ernie Els, 10 years his senior, had essentially forgotten how it was to win. But then, for sweet and savage beauty – if you happened to be the man they still call The Big Easy – this was something guaranteed to take you back to the days when there was every reason to believe anything was possible.
Els won his last major in the wildest of Scottish weather at Muirfield 10 years ago. In the 1990s he twice won the US Open. He had a swing that made aficionados of the game swoon, and he never lost that capacity to delight a purist. What did disappear, though, until the drama of this extraordinary dusk, was belief in his own powers to shape a major tournament – and the most crucial matter of the putting stroke.
Once again it appeared to be a fatal career development as the younger man from Adelaide, right, in search of his first major, went into the back nine four shots ahead of his nearest rival, playing partner and former US champion Graeme McDowell, and six ahead of Els.
Yet as Els sighed just a little at his dwindling hopes of translating a last round of mostly impressive application – and some superior putting that gave him a final round of two under par – the convulsion came. It consumed Scott, it left him so hollowed out that on the final hole he simply kneeled and shook his head.
His denouement was one of the most shocking in the history of major tournament golf.
While Els preserved his prospects with a nerveless 15ft birdie on the 18th hole, Scott was in the last throes of what amounted to a piece of sustained and quite appalling self-destruction. He bogeyed the last four holes. It was a disintegration which surely had the more sensitive observers shielding their eyes.
McDowell, who had the close-up view of this living nightmare, said: "This was the return of one of golf's great champions. It was a highlight for a classy, classy golfer. He's had three or four very indifferent years."
Els is one of golf's largest and most amiable men and it was typical of him that his first victory statement should stress the depth of his feelings for the beaten man. Scott handled himself with much dignity in the face of such wretched disaster and reported that he had not yet allowed himself to cry. But it was, he allowed, a distinct possibility at some point of a long and surely deeply reflective night.
For Els this represented more than a stunning and unexpected triumph. It was the time when he could walk away from the dread of believing that whatever he attempted to achieve, he was destined to fail. That slippage of confidence, ironically enough, was most significantly imposed by the man who last night was singularly unable to inflict himself on the unfolding drama: Tiger Woods.
Els admitted he was one of the prime victims. "You have to believe you can win in any circumstances, you have the ability to inflict yourself on any situation. But I have to be honest. Tiger took a lot of that belief away when he went storming to another US Masters title. It was one I wanted to win very badly – and up until that point I believed I could win it."
Last night it was as though he had emerged from a rather dark stand of Georgian pines. Ironically, this time it was the Tiger who had a need to hug the shadows.
While Scott played with freedom – and some refined aggression – Tiger repeatedly took the cautious option, which meant that when the Australian finally began to falter over the last nine yesterday Woods was too far behind – too preoccupied with avoiding the breakdown of his own game to spread any of the old destructive influence and mount the necessary challenge.
Scott now has an extremely long and tortuous journey to a place against which he will need some considerable protection over the next few weeks and months.
And for The Big Easy? As Els' huge smile illuminated the gathering shadows, it was easy to believe he had returned, if not to the best of his days, certainly to the kind on which he could still believe that, indeed, just about anything can happen.
This was the return of one of golf's great champions. He's had three or four very indifferent years