'An unforgettable evening that will rank with the greatest of them all'

So many times you believe the script of the greatest golf tournament of them all has gone beyond its own possibilities of drama and pathos - and always you are confounded by some new extravagance, some new journey to the limits of the glory and intrigue of sport.

So many times you believe the script of the greatest golf tournament of them all has gone beyond its own possibilities of drama and pathos - and always you are confounded by some new extravagance, some new journey to the limits of the glory and intrigue of sport.

Here last night on an evening of heart-breaking beauty we had an episode to rank with the most staggering of them all. And as we absorb the meaning of it we should quickly dismiss any hint that Todd Hamilton in any way intruded among his betters.

When he triumphed over Ernie Els in the play-off of the 133rd Open we knew that both men had been keeping company with the élite of their sport.

We knew we had something to rank with Tom Watson's victory over Jack Nicklaus in 36 holes of hand-to-hand combat at Turnberry in 1977, when Watson won by one shot and every man, woman and child present who were of sound mind and rudimentary knowledge of the game said they would never forget a moment of the extraordinary tension. We were back with Nicklaus walking down the last fairway of St Andrews with tears in his eyes. We were feeling again the emotion that came on a flood tide with the imaginative brilliance and sublime execution of Seve Ballesteros.

All these triumphs were different in subtle ways but all of them shared the quality that held every soul on this historic course in the pale sunshine of last evening. It was a competitive integrity that had glowed throughout an afternoon of breathtaking action and driven the survivors to their battle over holes one and two, 17 and 18.

At one point there was a hint that perhaps Hamilton, the uncelebrated, 38-year-old from Oquwawka, Illinois, was walking in the obscure footsteps of last year's startling winner Ben Curtis. But if Hamilton and Curtis are from America's Midwest, it was one of the few links between what happened last year at Royal St George's and the relentless battle here beside the Firth of Clyde. Curtis came from nowhere to ambush a faltering Thomas Bjorn at Sandwich. Hamilton dug in for two days against a roll-call of the greatest players currently operating at the top of the game.

That was the astounding build-up to his gut-wrenching crisis on the last hole of the final round. Els, the world No 2, who had over two days been producing golf so powerful, so resilient it seemed that no one was capable of breaking his resolve, failed to deliver a 10-foot putt after Hamilton had finally cracked, pushing his tee shot to the right, and then pulling his second into more rough on the left before making bogey. Els, who had breathed life back into his effort with a birdie on the 17th, scored the par that carried us into the extra four holes, but there was no sense that his opponent was incapable of recovering his fight.

Indeed, repeatedly he had resisted evidence that Els had the nerve and the game finally to land the fourth major title - to add to his two US Opens and Open - that had been so cruelly denied him in the most brilliant phase of his golfing life at the US Masters in April and the US Open last month.

That idea became almost irresistible on the formidable 11th hole when Hamilton, leading by a shot, saw what he thought was the unfolding disaster of his superbly gifted opponent.

Els, who had played the back nine with extraordinary style and panache on Saturday evening, sent his tee shot into a bush, from which he hacked it out into the rough and then produced one of the great recovery shots. A nerveless putt kept Els in contention after the convulsion of losing two shots on the 10th. On the famous Postage Stamp 8th hole the South African had played arguably the shot of the tournament - a recovery from a pot bunker which recalled one of his most extraordinary moves while winning The Open at Muirfield two years ago.

This was the stunning reality going into the final phase of yesterday's drama. It was not the man from Oquwawka who had been hanging on in the presence of the great. He had stood and fought off the challenge of Phil Mickelson, who was threatening to join such legends as Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer among the winners of the US Masters and The Open in the same year. He had scarcely heard the faint rustle of the threat of Tiger Woods, who had moved to within three shots of the lead with birdies on the fifth and sixth holes, before subsiding into the half-world of glory and pain he has been occupying for two years now. He was impervious to the possibility of Retief Goosen conjuring again the form that took him the US Open title last month.

Hamilton, who only made the US PGA tour after eight attempts at qualifying school, who spent years touring the outbacks of world golf, including the Far East, declared that he cared nothing for the hierarchy of golf. He was 38 years old and he fought along a tortuous route to glory. He had the nerve and the game to confound all those who said that he was pitted against too much talent.

He played the Big Easy to a standstill in the hardest day's golf of his life - and no one could dismiss him with a suggestion that he was an outsider who had wandered in for a day in the sun. All Hamilton's days will be illuminated now by the fact that he won the greatest golf tournament with a nerve and a spirit that simply wouldn't die.

For Els there will be pain indeed. His game is magnificent and he has now three times in succession come to the last days of great tournaments with the scent of victory in his nostrils. How do you console him? Only by saying that he was part of one of the most absorbing days golf will ever know. One day he may wake up and take some comfort. No doubt, though, he will be an old man.

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