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Brutish Open: Ernie Els wins 2002 British Open at Muirfield

Ernie Els wins the 2002 British Open
Fred Vuich/SI
Ernie Els overcame the elements, and tough competition in a playoff, to win the 2002 British Open at Muirfield.

This article first appeared in the July 29, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Once again Tiger Woods left the field in his jet wash. But this time he did so literally. Woods was kiting across the Atlantic on Sunday, with his friend Mark O'Meara, when Ernie Els tapped in on the fifth playoff hole to win the British Open. All week the 18th green at Muirfield resembled one of those plastic-grass welcome mats laid at the foot of the grand Victorian clubhouse—and appropriately so, for that was Woods's last view of Muirfield. He was standing on history's doorstep, unable, for once, to get in.

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He arrived with fanfare (talk of a Grand Slam) and left with plane fare ($37,924.80) after finishing in 28th place. In doing so, Woods proved as endearingly human as the winner, Els, who performed the entire third act of Hamlet on Sunday's back nine—up a stroke after 15, down a stroke after 16, at which time the Big Easy looked remarkably small and extremely uneasy. "I was asking myself," said Els, of his 5 on the par-3 16th, "is this the way you want to lose another major? Is this the way you want to screw up an Open championship?" For a man who finished third at the British Open last year and second to Woods in 2000, these were not good swing thoughts. "It wasn't," Els conceded, "my finest moment."

Indeed, the 32-year-old feared, by his own admission, disappearing altogether after Sunday. "Look at some of the guys who lost the Masters, or this tournament," he said of golf's more grisly finishes. "Some of them never recover." Ed Sneed lipped out twice in the final two holes to lose the 1979 Masters. Costantino Rocca imploded against John Daly in a playoff at the '95 Open at St. Andrews. Needing double-bogey 6 to win, Jean Van de Velde made 7 at the '99 Open at Carnoustie. None of them have been seen since.

Van de Velde was on hand at Muirfield, but as a BBC announcer. Woods is the anti-Van de Velde, an infallible Sunday closer, difficult to relate to, who had won six of the last nine majors, seven of the last 11 and the first two this year. In a summer that may conclude without baseball, Woods's possible Grand Slam, and his unrelenting dominance, was on everyone's lips but his own.

"I'll tell you who I admire," President Bush volunteered last month in the White House, perhaps inspired by the sculpture behind him, of a buffalo trampling wolves. " Tiger Woods. I listen to these announcers talk about how he intimidates the field, and that speaks to me about his mental capacity. But I'll bet if you look at Tiger's exercise regime, there's a reason why—besides his mental capacity—he's such a dominating champion. And I don't think that story's been done, has it? If it has, I haven't read it."

You haven't read it in any detail, Mr. President, because Woods will not yield even the smallest personal detail, which of course only heightens his allure. "The blandness is so complete," wrote Simon Barnes in The Times of London last week, "there is something mystical about it." Like some African tribes, Woods seems to think that cameras rob him of his soul. So he walks the course with a private security detail, three men in matching Nike jackets who eyeball the gallery through mirrored shades and issue orders to spectators who merely carry an unconcealed Instamatic, "Put that camera away."

Remarkably, the spectators obey, and are even apologetic. In his addled, entourage-laden later years, Elvis was called, by his karate instructor, "Master Tiger" and one hopes that this reclusive Master Tiger doesn't become Elvis. He may have no choice. As Woods ducked into a Porta-John on the 12th fairway on Friday, an on-course reporter for BBC Radio Scotland whispered meaningfully into his live microphone, "Tiger has gone to the toilet."

"He lives in a different world from us," says Shigeki Maruyama, and that world seemed—to aspiring colonists last week—as distant and forbidding as Pluto. Ground Control to David Toms: Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.... "Look at David Toms," Nick Price says of one of golf's great short hitters. "Probably in the rest of his career, he'll never have a chance to win the Masters."

Which is part of what made Muirfield so inviting to so many professionals. The need to land balls on pencil-thin fairways, with muttonchop sideburns of rough, took driver out of play on all but three or four holes. "It's waist-high in places," Woods said of the fescue, in which Ian Woosnam and Corey Pavin were in peril of disappearing altogether. In fact, when Englishman Gary Evans, who thrillingly led the tournament at suppertime on Sunday, pulled a ball into the rough, there were roughly 150 spectators within five yards of it. Though those 12 dozen people looked for a full five minutes—and found four balls, including a Titleist 2, the brand and number Evans was playing—not one of the balls was his. Bermuda grass? This was the Bermuda Triangle.

Woods found that rough on his first shot of the tournament (distracted by what he called the "heavy finger" of a recalcitrant photographer). While he shot 70 that day, he lipped out seven putts and looked quietly exasperated by what might have been. "Mostly," said his playing partner Maruyama, "he did a lot of sighing." Then the Japanese star sighed massively in imitation, his entire body wilting like an inflatable man from which the plug has been pulled. Tiger's Friday round of 68 was almost identical, and still he was poised in the passing lane, two strokes from the lead, going into Saturday. But as that day dawned, a black cloud was gathering on the horizon.

Literally so. By 2 p.m. the cloud was enormous, and with it came 30-mph winds, a 40� windchill and—at almost precisely the moment Tiger teed off, at 2:30—a needlelike rain that fell sideways. It was, for the next four hours, like walking into a sneeze. Gales ravaged umbrellas and scorecards alike. Thomas Bj�rn, who hit driver-one-iron to the green on the 560-yard, par-5 5th hole on Friday, hit driver, one-iron and one-iron again to reach it on Saturday. "I was just hoping to get in alive," said Ian Garbutt of England. Said Ireland's Des Smyth, "It was basically survival out there." Added Price, "It's the worst I've seen since '75...." These men sounded less like golfers returning to the clubhouse than harrowed sailors returning to port.

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