It didn't seem likely at the start of the day. Six shots back of Adam Scott when he teed off on Sunday afternoon, Ernie Els' chances of taking home his fourth major championship were slim. The way Scott was playing coming into the final round, hitting picture-perfect approach shots and rolling in key putts, Els knew the only way he was walking away with the Claret Jug was with a brilliant round ... and a little bit of help from the Aussie.
He got both, as Els picked up four birdies on the back nine, including a must-make, 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that cut the deficit to one, and Scott completely unraveled over the last four holes to hand the South African his second Claret Jug. (Side note: The win means Els now has major wins in three difference decades.)
"I feel for him," Els said of Scott after the round. "I'm numb. Later on it will set in that I won this golf tournament, but right now I really feel for my buddy. He's such a great guy. He's so close to being such a great superstar. I know that's not the way he wanted to lose a tournament. I feel very fortunate, but I feel very bad for Adam today."
Els looked to be in a state of complete shock after his round, sharing a hug with his caddie as he tried to make sense of the situation. The thing is everyone, including Els, is still trying to come to grips with what has to be one of the worst collapses in major championship history.
Els won the tournament, sure, but heading to the 18th, it appeared as if he'd likely come up just short again on golf's biggest stage, after he missed a makeable birdie putt on the 16th, and another on the 17th.
At the time you got the feeling that the near-misses were a sign that this wouldn't be his week. But Els pressed on, pulling driver on one of the toughest driving holes on the course and hitting his best tee shot of the tournament, watching as his ball came to rest in the center of the fairway, well within wedge range.
Els took dead aim with his approach and hit it to 15 feet for a makeable birdie opportunity. Now let's set the scene here: Over the last year, Els has missed some excruciating putts, including a couple critical misses in a playoff at the Zurich Classic, and a 3-footer at the Transitions Championship that cost him a playoff spot.
After years of being one of the best clutch putters in the world, it seemed like every time Els had a biggie to do something special, the ball never went in. This time around, however, was different. Els struck the putt and watched as it disappeared into the hole for birdie.
With the exception of David Duval, who won at Royal Lytham back in 2001, nobody had more success at this course coming into the week. Els finished T-2 (1996) and T-3 (2001) the last two times Royal Lytham hosted the British Open, which led people to believe he could be a factor.
Els didn't disappoint, hanging around the lead all week before making a back-nine charge on Sunday that ended with an incredibly clutch birdie putt on the final hole of the tournament.
''It was my time for some reason," Els said after his round. It certainly was.
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