• Open Championship

Els finds right rhythm at Lytham as Scott rues cruel fate

Alex Dimond at Royal Lytham & St Annes July 22, 2012
Ernie Els stormed through to lift his second Claret Jug © Getty Images

You can concentrate on all that came before them (and, as is the way of the modern world, that will most certainly happen), but in the end the 141st Open Championship came down to two 12-foot putts at the 72nd hole.

Ernie Els made his; Adam Scott saw his slide just by.

As a result, it was the South African who lifted the famous Claret Jug.

That's the concise version, the simple assessment of events this Sunday, this week, in Yorkshire. The longer narrative of the tournament at Royal Lytham & St Annes is one of nerves, momentum, bad decisions, and calm under pressure.

One of grabbing opportunity by the collar, and letting fate overwhelm. One of pressure finally telling, and experience proving its worth. It's about those famous twin imposters, and the narrow margins that can define them.

But, in the end, it's still just about one made putt and one missed putt.

Before hailing one player and criticising another, it's worth remembering that this is the knife-edge on which the game of golf is played.

Scott, the Australian who grew up idolising Greg Norman for his run-away victory at Royal St George's in 1993, unfortunately ended up emulating the infamous meltdowns the two-time major champion will forever be known for - finishing with four successive bogeys as victory slipped agonisingly out of his grasp.

Els, the South African whose stock has fallen sufficiently in recent times that he did not even qualify for an invite to The Masters at the start of the year, found an extra gear on the back nine, rolling in three birdies - including that crucial one at the 18th - to steal away the tournament.

His move came as the wind finally picked up, as the course got firmer and the difficult challenge the players had expected all week finally turned up for the tournament's defining nine holes. As Tiger Woods, Brandt Snedeker, Graeme McDowell and, yes, Scott all began leaking shots in the circumstances, one player stood tall against the wind, swung true and got his rewards.

The 'Big Easy' became the 'Rhythm at Lytham'. As a result, Ernie Els became the champion golfer of the year for the second time in his career.

"This is a crazy, crazy game," Els said afterwards, the 42-year-old barely able to process his and Scott's contrasting fortunes just like everyone else.

"Everything's groovy at the moment," he added. "I feel for Scotty. I hope he doesn't take it as bad as I did.

"He can't let this thing linger. He's got the next ten years to win more of these than I've won."

For his part, Scott - who Els described on Saturday as "one of my best friends in the game, a potential world No. 1" - seemed to have put a harrowing loss in remarkable perspective, although he admitted the magnitude of Sunday's events could well take a while to sink in.

"Hopefully I can let it go really quickly," he said. "I respect Ernie a lot, he's a worthy champion for sure.

"I didn't feel it was a case of nerves … it was a very sloppy finish. You need to play some good shots to win these tournaments - and I didn't."

Rather than the par putt on 18 (or the tee-shot into the bunker that preceded it), Scott identified his approach shot at 17 - where he flew a six-iron over the green from 208 yards - as the decisive moment in his round. But there were many other pivotal shots during his fourth round - least of all the inability to get up-and-down for birdie at eight, or the missed three-footer for par at 16.

Every warrior this week has those tales of missed shots, however - for Scott it is just unfortunate (and, more pertinently, painful) that his all came in the final run.

"Everything's groovy at the moment. I feel for Scotty. I hope he doesn't take it as bad as I did"
- Ernie Els

"I know I've let a really great chance slip through my fingers today," he conceded. "Somehow I'll look back and take the positives from it. Today is one of those days - that's why they call it golf."

Scott made Royal Lytham look easy over the first three days, a ridiculous standard that you sense will only serve to distort the historical perception of his eventual fall, but it was a different beast on Sunday - as holding the greens became exponentially harder and the wind made shot selection, and the ability to stand over the ball with any conviction, a test of will.

Els finished in the top ten on both his previous Open appearances at the Fylde links (in 1996 and 2001), and indicated that an instinctive, natural connection with the course was perhaps the crucial difference between him and Scott at the end.

"I feel comfortable here. When you feel comfortable on the course, you can hit the shots," he reflected. "When you've been around as long as I have, you've seen a lot of things happen. And I just felt that the golf course is such that if you just doubt it a little bit, it was going to bite you.

"There's too many bunkers, too much trouble, and there was a bit of a breeze. So I felt I was going to hit the shots and I felt - I still felt I had a chance."

In the end Els had more than a chance, he had victory.

Of course, there will always be those who say Adam Scott lost the 2012 Open Championship, more than Ernie Els won it. A final round of 75, after previous efforts of 64, 67 and 68, suggests as much. Yet beyond Els no-one at the top end of the leaderboard scored well on Sunday - Snedeker and Woods shared third at three-under despite shooting 74 and 73 respectively, while McDowell (two-under) matched Scott's 75 only in the end - as the course played completely different.

Nicolas Colsaerts fired a 65 early in the day; but once the wind came, survival became tricky.

Adam Scott was left utterly deflated © Getty Images

With three birdies in his final seven holes, Els effectively picked up six or seven shots on the field (his 32 for the back nine beat any of the other late starters by a minimum of four). Five shots adrift of Scott with nine to play, in the end he was left to play a waiting game where his chances of winning seemed to improve with every shot played.

Waiting in such circumstances is never easy, but Els said on this occasion it was especially hard - considering his personal relationship with Scott, he was barely able to hope for a play-off let alone anything more.

"[Usually], you're not really hoping the guy is going to make a mistake, but you're hoping you don't have to go to a playoff, you can win outright," Els said. "This one was different because I feel for Adam. I really didn't mind going to a play-off. At best, I was hoping for a play-off [while out] on the putting green."

In the end, an extra four holes in purgatory was not necessary. Els now has four majors to his name - two US Opens, two Open Championships - which puts him level with Phil Mickelson and compatriot Bobby Locke (among others), and behind only a who's who of the finest players to ever grace the fairways.

Eighteen years after making his major breakthrough in the US Open at Oakmont, only Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have won majors over a longer time span in the modern era. One putt may have been all it took, but it nevertheless elevated Els to a different level in golf's pantheon.

"It's amazing this game, you know," was Els' ultimate conclusion - one Scott will doubtless disagree with for some time to come. "You have a positive feel, you give yourself positive vibes - sometimes positive things happen."

Positive vibes, comfort with the course, two short putts. The margins may have been small, but in the end the ramifications were huge.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk