GULLANE, Scotland -- Relief washed over Ernie Els as he
cradled the silver claret jug after winning the British Open in a
battle that could have ruined him.
He didn't beat Tiger Woods at Muirfield. It only felt that way.
''I'm back on track,'' Els said. ''I can now legitimately try to
win the majors.''
After four years of marveling at Woods' skills and questioning
his own, Els showed he has the mettle to do just that.
The Big Easy made it hard on himself Sunday by squandering a
three-stroke lead on the back nine, by taking a double bogey when
the trophy was in his grasp, by making the kind of history he could
have done without.
In the first four-man playoff in British Open history, and the first one to go to sudden death, Els
outlasted Thomas Levet of France with a signature bunker shot to
save par on the first sudden-death hole.
''I didn't come here with a lot of confidence,'' Els said. ''I'm
going to leave here as the Open champion. It's been a little
journey for me this week.''
He had just enough strength left to throw his arms in the air
and his hat into the fading sunlight of a Scottish sky after his
5-foot par putt curled in the right side of the cup.
"It was truly hard work, but nobody said it was going to be
easy,'' Els said.
It proved to be far more difficult for Woods, who was trying to
win the third leg of the Grand Slam but shot himself out of the
tournament with an 81 in the third round, his worst score as a
He left town on a much better note: seven birdies for a 65,
matching the best score of a sunny, almost balmy, day in Scotland.
Woods finished at even-par 284, tied for 29th.
Els was in despair after a double bogey on the 16th hole, which
put him one stroke behind with two holes to play. Somehow, he
pulled himself back together.
He finished birdie-par to get into the playoff, and had enough
time to eat a sandwich and consult with his psychologist, Jos
''He just basically agreed that I had four more holes to play,''
Els said. ''And those four holes were the most important holes of
my career. I was going to give it 100 percent.''
Els made all pars in the four holes of overtime to force sudden
death with Levet.
Then came the most amazing par of all.
With his right foot anchored on the top of a bunker left of the
18th green, Els dug in and blasted out to five feet.
''That bunker shot was a piece of nerves,'' Levet said. ''He's
very, very talented. I lost to a great player.''
Els was utterly exhausted and exceedingly pleased.
''I guess I've got a little fight in me when it counts,'' Els
said. ''It would have been a very hard loss if I didn't win this
No other trophy has ever meant so much.
Els honed his game on European tour soil and was destined for
greatness until Woods came along and started collecting majors at a
frightening rate. Els has been runner-up to him twice in the
majors, six times overall.
He won the British Open the same way he won his two U.S. Open
titles -- with grit and determination, unfazed even when it looked
as though he had wasted his chances.
''This was one of the hardest tournaments I've ever played,''
Els said. ''The emotions I went through today -- I don't think I've
ever been through that.''
It was the third major championship for the 32-year-old Els, his
first since the U.S. Open at Congressional five years ago.
None of three was easy, but this one tops the difficulty list.
Ahead by as many as three shots on the back nine, his lead was
down to one when Els took double bogey on the par-3 16th.
''Walking off 16, I was like, 'Is this the way you want to be
remembered? By screwing up in an Open Championship?' That wasn't
one of my finer moments,'' he said.
Els had no room for error, and didn't make any.
He finished birdie-par for a 1-under 70 to join Levet, Stuart
Appleby and Steve Elkington at 6-under 278.
The largest British Open playoff before Sunday involved three
players in 1999 at Carnoustie and in 1989 at Royal Troon. The
lowest score over four holes is the winner.
Levet struck first, making a 50-foot birdie putt on the second
hole in the playoff (No. 16). It was about the same distance as his
eagle putt on the 71st hole that enabled him to shoot 66 and get
into the playoff.
But the Frenchman started to feel the pressure, and he was lucky
to escape the final two playoff holes with a par and a bogey.
Appleby, who birdied three of the last four holes for a 65 to
make the playoff, hit his approach into the right bunker, couldn't
get on the green and made bogey to finish 1-over. Elkington, the
'95 PGA champion who closed with a 66, missed a 6-foot par putt on
No. 18 and also dropped out at 1-over.
Els and Levet, who finished the four-hole playoff in even par,
headed back to the 18th. Levet found a pot bunker on the left side
of the fairway, and the best he could do was advance it down the
fairway. Bogey was imminent.
Els split the middle with a safe 2-iron, but then pulled a
5-iron into the greenside bunker, leaving himself more work. He
came through with another clutch shot, then faced perhaps the
longest 5-foot putt of his life.
It was shaky, but it was good enough.
Though no one saw Grand Slam history in the making Sunday, the gallery was
hardly deprived of drama. Muirfield was a mixture of cheers and
moans that resounded across the links, and both belonged to Els.
Starting with No. 9, he birdied three of four holes to build a
three-stroke lead and suddenly seized command of the tournament. If
only the ending had been so easy.
The roller-coaster began when Els hit into a pot bunker on the
par-3 13th green that had a wall so steep he could barely see
over the top. He had to place his left foot on the sodded wall, and
the ball was nestled in a furrow where the sand had been raked. Els
dug in and blasted out to two feet for a remarkable save.
It was the kind of shot that wins majors, only Els had much more
He found another bunker off the 14th tee and had to play out
sideways, leading to bogey. But the real damage came on the par-3
16th, where Els had a one-stroke lead and a 7-iron in his hands.
He pulled it long and left, and all the way down a swale. Then,
Els hit his chip too hard. It went to the front of the green,
paused, then continued onto the fairway. He chipped back and missed
an 8-foot putt, taking double bogey.
Suddenly one stroke behind, Els gathered himself quickly and
smashed a drive down the 17th fairway, allowing him to easily reach
the green in two and take two putts for birdie to make it a
foursome at the top.
Els had a 30-foot birdie putt to avoid the playoff, but came up
If the sloppy ending looked familiar, think back to Southern
Hills at the U.S. Open last year where Els' childhood friend,
Retief Goosen, had a three-putt from 12 feet on the final hole to
drop into a playoff.
Goosen won the 18-hole playoff the next day. Els only had to go
five extra holes, but he accomplished his goal -- a silver jug with
his name on it.
And no more questions about whether he can win the big ones.