On the eve of the 131st Open Championship, Ernie Els surveyed the scene outside the Muirfield clubhouse and looked down the 18th hole with all the grandstands towering into the sky. The South African's form in the lead up to the Open had been nothing special but at that moment, a week almost to the minute before those stands would be full of spectators cheering his greatest triumph, Els turned to a companion and said: "If this does not inspire you, nothing will."
Els was among those players who some former champions had criticised for affording Tiger Woods too much respect. But when the golfing world gathered for the 2002 Open, Woods had already won the Masters and the US Open and was after a calendar-year Grand Slam. The last time a player had won the first two majors of the year was in 1972 when Jack Nicklaus also found himself at Muirfield for the third leg of an improbable feat.
Nicklaus ended up losing by a single stroke to Lee Trevino. Woods never got that close, halted in his tracks by a force of nature. It was meant to be high summer on the afternoon of Saturday 20 July, but it ended up being one of the stormiest days in the history of the Open Championship. The rain came down hard and sideways, driving and stinging thanks to winds that limbered up at 25mph and gusted at twice that speed. It came from the north and suddenly Muirfield was plunged into an arctic chill.
It was not the worst conditions golf has ever been played in, either at the Open or, no doubt, by members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. But Woods and many of his fellow professionals had probably never seen anything like it. It was calm in the morning when Justin Rose and Justin Leonard scored 68s. They had started the day joint 50th and ended it joint third. The storm blew in with sudden vigour shortly after they had finished, just as Woods was teeing off.
What no one was expecting was that the world No 1 was about to suffer his worst score as a professional. His 81 was the first time in six glorious years he had failed to break 80. There were two double-bogeys; he was out in 42 and played the next four holes in five over.
Suggestions the American gave in to the conditions are unworthy of such a fierce competitor. But perhaps for the first time in his career Woods could not find an answer to the test he had been given. As he dropped shot after shot, he swung with ever greater ferocity and the worse it got.
It is an old cliché beloved of experts in links golf that the harder the wind, the easier you swing. With one of the smoothest swings in golf, it was appropriate that Els ended the day with a two-stroke lead. He had bogeyed four of the first six holes but, as the weather eased later in his round, came home in 32. "We kept dropping shots on the front nine but they wouldn't take our names off the leaderboard," Els said. "I knew then nobody was really having a lot of fun."
Els took advantage of a few holes at the end when the sun tried to come out again, but he had not blown himself away mentally, unlike others. Colin Montgomerie, no lover of links golf despite a 64 the previous day, slumped to an 84, equalling the greatest differential between rounds in Open history. Perhaps the best rounds of the day were the 71 of Sergio Garcia and the 72 of Scott McCarron, both having played the entire round in the teeth of the storm. Duffy Waldorf, he of the Hawaiian shirts, went out in 45 but came back in 32, a remarkable turnaround.
There was drama of a different kind to follow the next day. Early on Woods, the Grand Slam once more only a dream, restored some personal pride with a 65. The score was equalled by Gary Evans, an unsung professional of the European Tour, who earned the hearts of the nation when he lost a ball with his second shot on the par-five 17th. Most of the gallery were enlisted in the search but it was to no avail and Evans had to walk back and replay the shot. This time he found the green and with a huge putt managed to save par. Turning to a television camera, he mouthed: "That was for you mum."
The last was a struggle and a relieved Evans signed off with a bogey to set the clubhouse target at five-under par. Padraig Harrington also had a five at the last and finished alongside Evans and Shigeki Maruyama.
Els, who saved par with a brilliant bunker shot at the 13th, looked to have things wrapped up until he took a double-bogey at the 16th. He birdied the next and parred the last to get into a four-way play-off on six under with the Australians Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby and France's Thomas Levet, who had closing rounds of 65, 66 and 66 respectively.
After the regulation extra four holes, the two Aussies had dropped out but Els and Levet went back to the 18th. The Frenchman was revelling in the atmosphere but could do no better than a bogey. Els found himself in a bunker with an awkward stance but played another brilliant shot and then holed from four feet for par.
Levet lifted the South African high in the air - they called it Levetation. It was a popular victory. The 32-year-old had also won two US Opens and might have been expected to win more majors had Woods not been around. "This was one of the hardest tournaments I have played in, but it is the most rewarding," said Els, who finished fifth at Muirfield as a 22-year-old 10 years previously.
"This is the greatest championship. I have been dreaming of winning the Open for a long time. If I didn't win it this year I don't think I would have made it. Every time I had control of the tournament, I hit a bad shot. After the 16th I thought to myself: 'do you want to be remembered as the guy who screwed up the Open?' I guess I've got a little bit of fight in me when it counts."Reuse content