Ice-cool Hamilton conjures thrilling finale to epic Open

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The Independent Online

Todd Hamilton, an American who has learned his craft around the world, became the second unexpected winner of what is often referred to as the "World's Open".

Todd Hamilton, an American who has learned his craft around the world, became the second successive unexpected winner of what is often referred to as the "World's Open". In the most dramatic finale to the 133rd Open Championship, Hamilton, a 38-year-old from Texas via Oquawka, Illinois, and all ports east, followed Ben Curtis by lifting the claret jug.

But where Curtis had never won before, Hamilton was a proven winner in Korea, Thailand and Japan before reaching the US Tour this season and claiming the Honda Open in March. This, however, was several leagues above what the player ranked 56th in the world had previously experienced.

Hamilton beat Ernie Els in a four-hole play-off after the South African rallied to prolong an epic day of golf. Phil Mickelson, the Masters champion, finished only a stroke behind. Hamilton promised to stay calm and could not have vanquished the game's best without that vital attribute. He said he was a practitioner of "ugly golf" but beauty is in the eye of the holder of the ancient badge of honour.

Twice he came to the 18th a shot ahead but saw that advantage disappear on the first occasion. In the play-off, the first two holes were halved in fours, but then Els missed the green at the short 17th and failed to get up and down.

At the last, Els sent a seven-iron to 10 feet but Hamilton, from 30 yards short, played an exquisite running shot with his rescue club, a hybrid of a three-wood and a one-iron, to two feet. International Rescue could not get up and down more reliably.

Els, who won his Open crown in a play-off at Muirfield two years ago, missed the birdie he needed to stay alive. He became the first player ever to play four rounds in the 60s in an Open twice but neither occasion brought a victory.

"Ernie is a true champion and fought to the end," Hamilton said. "I am so excited I won't sleep for two days. I've won tournaments around the world but nothing on this stage. To be the Open champion is very special."

Hamilton became the sixth American to win at Troon and the eighth in the last 10 years in The Open. "The fans got treated to some wonder golf," he said. "I'm usually a nervous guy and I've never been in this position in a tournament as grand as this but I felt very calm. I knew I was a decent golfer but I used to put too much pressure on myself and when I got into a tournament like this I didn't feel I belonged."

Els, second for the second time in a major this season, had a putt to win at the last in regulation, which was remarkable in itself given he was two behind with two to play. At the par-three 17th he hit a superb shot to 12 feet and rolled it in to be only one back. At the last he hit an iron down the middle of the fairway, while Hamilton, now facing the ultimate test, leaked his tee shot into the rough on the right.

He had 204 yards to the flagstick, but his attempt to reach the green came up short and left by the grandstand railings. His backswing was hampered and he received a free drop before pitching 20 feet past the hole. Els had already increased the pressure by sailing an eight-iron 12 feet short of the hole, right on line.

It was Hamilton to putt first and his effort was always left of the hole. Els had the chance for a winning birdie, but it was never struck firmly enough to hold the line. "That's the one I will think about for a while," said the South African. Els had closed with a 68 to be 10 under par, while Hamilton's 69 had been a brave effort after starting the final round in the glare of attention as overnight leader.

It was a day of astonishing shots. There was a passage of play that almost defied belief, started by Mike Weir, the Canadian holing out of a bunker for a two at the short fifth. Moments later Tiger Woods did exactly the same. The world No 1, who has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes, picked up another shot at the next but he never got closer than within two of the lead and from six under he subsided to a 72 and three under. For those keeping score, that is nine majors since his last victory.

Back at the par-five fourth hole, Thomas Levet chipped in from the fringe for an eagle. He was in the lead, but not for long, and finished alongside Davis Love. The American holed his second shot at the last, but Lee Westwood made a long putt on the green to take fourth place on his own, his best finish in a major championship.

Mickelson also pitched in for eagle at the fourth from the fairway short of the green. By turn, Mickelson, Els and Hamilton were all tied at nine under.

Hamilton dropped a shot at the first of them, but it was Els who was really in trouble. His drive finished on a bank to the right and, playing with the ball well above his feet, could only hack out into thick rough. A double-bogey ensued to drop him two behind.

Worse might have followed at the 11th, the Railway Hole, when his drive finished on the branches of a gorse bush. Rather than take a penalty drop for an unplayable, Els took a swing at it and advanced the ball forward. Then came another imperious iron shot to 15 feet and he holed the putt for a remarkable par.

Mickelson's run of holes without dropping a shot, sustained by two brilliant par-putts at the ninth and the 10th, finally came to an end at the 13th after 49 holes. He missed the green and could not get up and down and though he picked up a birdie-four at the 16th, Mickelson had to settle for a run of major results which reads first, second and now third.

Els would play the last six holes in three under par and started the run for home by sinking an improbable putt from over 40 feet at the 13th. But Hamilton never wavered from his routine of playing sensibly, never overreaching himself, and when the American chipped in for a two at the short 14th, it appeared it must be his day.

This was a furious duel. Both pitched and holed putts for birdies at the 16th, Hamilton three ahead for the briefest of moments, but then Els responded from 12 feet knowing nothing else would do. "What Todd and Ernie did is really incredible," said Mickelson.