Elated Ernie Els comforts Adam Scott after his Open collapse
South African finds time to put an arm around runner-up after snatching victory
Wow. The word was uttered in disbelief. Adam Scott's knees went from underneath him, buckled by the most agonising sequence of numbers in Open history. With four to play the Claret Jug was his. A lead of four over Ernie Els appeared impregnable. Then 10 under par became nine, eight, seven and finally, agonisingly after missing from eight feet on the last, six. The jug was gone.
After all his struggles in recent years, his battle with the flat stick that led to the tool of last resort, the long handle putter, Els collected his second Open Championship and fourth major while screening his phone for texts on the putting green. He could barely believe it was his name called by Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the Royal and Ancient, to collect the trophy in front of the clubhouse.
It is said that Lytham produces champions of only the highest class. His birdie at the last to narrow the gap to one was certainly that, but even then it was surely too much to believe that, after a hiatus stretching back to his last major victory at Muirfield a decade ago, victory would be his.
We saw Rory McIlroy burn a four-shot lead on the final day at the Masters last year, but not with four to play. Scott's hero Greg Norman blew a six-shot lead at Augusta in 1996, but again his advantage had gone by the turn before he lost by five.
Scott shed tears that day, watching at home as a 16-year-old boy. He was too shocked to properly digest the meaning of what happened here. "I was so calm during the round. I spent most of my nervous energy leading up to round. On 16 we said ok, we need six good swings to get home. Unfortunately I was unable to do that.
"The shot into 17 was the one that disappointed me most. I did not need to look at the scoreboard to know that Ernie had birdied the last."
Els sympathised with the vanquished. "I feel for my buddy," he said. "I have been there, lost majors, lost tournaments. I just hope he does not take it as hard as I did.
"I'm so happy to have won but I have been at the other end more.
"I saw him in the scorer's hut. He seemed ok. I told him to stay positive, not to let it linger, that he will turn it around. He is still young enough. He's 32. He has 10 years to win more than I have."
The job of engraver can be a fraught affair. Too little time, too big a name are the obvious difficulties, neither of which looked remotely like presenting at Lytham. A sense of inevitability threw a wet blanket over much of the afternoon. Scott was meandering towards the championship. His bogey at 15, after finding a greenside bunker, did not appear terminal. When he horseshoed out at the next, the lead still stood at two.
The crucial intervention came when Els birdied the last with Scott playing the 17th. As much as he tried to convince himself otherwise, the momentum was shifting remorselessly the wrong way. As Scott laboured towards his cruel end Els was killing time.
"The R&A asked me if I wanted to watch but I preferred to go to the putting green. I thought I would be disappointed again. It has happened so many times. The most I was hoping for was a play-off," said Els.
At the start of the day the tension was elsewhere. It was like Christmas morning on the range. Graeme McDowell, surrounded by his key lieutenants, was in a bubble of excitable banter. His coach Pete Cowen was cracking jokes, caddie Kenny Comboy feeding him lines as well as clubs.
Those with an eye for detail would have noticed only a slight remodelling of the Pebble Beach look on the final day, same white shoes, beige trousers and pink top. Only the cardigan changed from grey to blue. McDowell was pumped. Scott made his exit to the tee looking composed, yet it was he who blinked first, three-putting from the middle of the green on the opening par-3. McDowell pulled his tee shot left but got up and down.
At the next it was McDowell's turn to wince, finding sand off the tee. From there all he could do was chip out sideways. Scott drilled his approach to three feet and tapped in for birdie. McDowell bogeyed to fall five behind.
The promised wind was starting to blow, nudging the speedometer at 20mph-plus. Scott found sand with his approach to the third and was back to 10 over par. All across the park Lytham was flexing its muscles. Brandt Snedeker dropped four shots in two holes after six successive pars.
His playing partner Tiger Woods went to the turn three over for his round, Zach Johnson the same. The wind was bringing bunkers into play, giving us the brutal Lytham of fable.
McDowell narrowed the gap to three with a birdie at the eighth but gave the shot back immediately after a clumsy chip at the ninth.
Up ahead Els announced his candidacy with two birdies in the opening three holes of the inward nine to draw level with McDowell on five under. With his putter acquiring the heat of old, Els was again becoming a feature at a major on the last day. He burst out of the margins on the final day of the US Open to remind the world of the talent he was and might be again.
When McDowell bogeyed the 10th Els was second on his own. He must have heard the groans. His approach to the 13th was laser-like in its pursuit of the pin. It would not yield the birdie he wanted but in this phase of the contest failure was relative.
McDowell was moments from a duck hook at the 11th that would end his chances. Scott, too was about to unravel. When Els gained a final opportunity at the last he made it stick and the Claret Jug was his.
Not-so-great Scott: But Adam isn't the only one to have self-destructed in a major
5.33pm Adam Scott leads by four shots with four holes to play after Ernie Els birdies the 16th
5.44pm Els misses the chance to birdie 17 but a dropped shot by Scott (at 15) takes the lead down to three
5.54pm Scott misses par on the 16th, his lead down to two
5.58pm A birdie on the last for Els and another bogey at 17 reduces Scott's lead to one
6.11pm Scott finds a bunker with his tee shot on the 18th as a play-off looks likely
6.21pm A 10ft putt is missed by Scott, giving Els the spoils for his fourth major title
Previously: Rory McIlroy – 2011 US Masters, Augusta
McIlroy began with a first round of 65 and went into the final 18 holes with a four-shot lead, but the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland collapsed to a closing round of 80 to finish 10 shots behind eventual champion Charl Schwartzel.
Greg Norman – 1996 US Masters, Augusta
Norman shot a course-record 63 in the first round and went into the last 18 holes with a six-shot lead over Nick Faldo. However, it was all downhill from there for the Australian, who carded five bogeys and two double-bogeys on his way to a six-over 78. In contrast, Faldo carded a 67 to claim his third Green Jacket after turning his six-shot deficit into a five-shot winning margin.
141st OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP, Royal Lytham & St Annes GC, Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, Final round (GB & Irl unless stated, par 70): 273 E Els (SA) 67 70 68 68; 274 A Scott (Aus) 64 67 68 75; 277 T Woods (US) 67 67 70 73; B Snedeker (US) 66 64 73 74; 278 G McDowell 67 69 67 75; L Donald 70 68 71 69; 279 T Aiken (SA) 68 68 71 72; N Colsaerts (Bel) 65 77 72 65; 280 Z Johnson (US) 65 74 66 75; M Kuchar (US) 69 67 72 72; G Ogilvy (Aus) 72 68 73 67; D Johnson (US) 73 68 68 71; V Singh (Fji) 70 72 68 70; A Noren (Swe) 71 71 69 69; M Calcavecchia (US) 71 68 69 72; T Olesen (Den) 69 66 71 74; M Angel Jimenez (Sp) 71 69 73 67; I Poulter 71 69 73 67; 281 H Mahan (US) 70 71 70 70; S Alker (NZ) 69 69 72 71; B Haas (US) 71 68 68 74; L Oosthuizen (SA) 72 68 68 73; 282 N Watney (US) 71 70 69 72; S Stricker (US) 67 71 73 71; B Watson (US) 67 73 68 74; M Baldwin 69 73 69 71; S Dyson 72 67 73 70; J Morrison 68 70 72 72; P Hanson (Swe) 67 72 72 71; C Pettersson (Swe) 71 68 73 70; 283 J Dufner (US) 70 66 73 74; R Fowler (US) 71 72 70 70; A Lahiri (India) 68 72 70 73; 284 K Bradley (US) 71 72 68 73; J Furyk (US) 72 70 71 71; P Lawrie 65 71 76 72; J Senden (Aus) 70 71 75 68; G Woodland (US) 73 70 70 71; 285 F Molinari (It) 69 72 71 73; K Stanley (US) 70 69 70 76; K J Choi (S Kor) 70 73 71 71; T Matteson (US) 70 72 71 72; P Harrington 70 72 70 73; R Sterne (SA) 69 73 73 70; 286 J Hicks (US) 68 74 69 75; R Fisher 72 71 74 69; J Luiten (Neth) 73 70 69 74; G Chalmers (Aus) 71 68 71 76; R Echenique (Arg) 73 69 71 73; S Khan 70 69 71 76; P Larrazabal (Sp) 73 70 71 72; B Estes (US) 69 72 74 71; L Westwood 73 70 71 72; 287 F Jacobson (Swe) 69 73 73 72; T Bjorn (Den) 70 69 72 76; G Owen 71 71 71 74; Y Fujimoto (Japan) 71 70 73 73; G Fernandez-Castano (Sp) 71 71 72 73; H English (US) 71 71 70 75; 288 R McIlroy 67 75 73 73; T Potter; Jr. (US) 69 71 74 74; D Whitnell 71 69 72 76; J Donaldson 68 72 72 76; 289 G Mulroy (SA) 71 69 72 77; R Goosen (SA) 70 70 75 74; Sang-moon Bae (S Kor) 72 71 71 75; L Slattery 69 72 75 73; C Howell III (US) 72 71 74 72; 290 A Baddeley (Aus) 71 71 74 74; J Milkha Singh (India) 70 71 76 73; A Da Silva (Br) 69 74 71 76; 291 J Pagunsan (Phil) 71 72 73 75; C Campbell (US) 73 70 74 74; T Muto (Japan) 67 72 74 78; M Laird 70 69 82 70; B Jones (Aus) 69 74 72 76; 292 T Watson (US) 71 72 76 73; B Grace (SA) 73 69 71 79; W Bennett 71 70 75 76; T Jaidee (Thai) 69 71 74 78; 294 J Daly (US) 72 71 77 74; R Cabrera Bello (Sp) 70 71 76 77; 298 A Romero (Arg) 70 69 77 82.
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