LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- What began as a foregone conclusion quickly turned into much more than that as Ernie Els went one direction and Adam Scott went another at the 141st British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Els made clutch birdies on the par-4 14th and 18th holes for a final-round 68 while the leader, Scott (75), collapsed behind him, and Els came from six strokes behind at the turn to win his second British Open and fourth major title.
After trailing by as many as seven strokes early on the front nine, Els, 42, who also won the Open in 2002 and won the '94 and '97 U.S. Opens, stormed back with a four-under-par back-nine 32 to finish seven under par for the tournament, edging Scott by one.
Brandt Snedeker (74) and Tiger Woods (73) tied for third, four back.
"I was just hoping for a playoff," Els said.
"I can't justify anything that I've done out there," said Scott, who had led the tournament from the start. "I didn't finish the tournament well today."
On a day when the wind finally blew at Lytham, Scott, 32, stayed mostly steady until his four-shot lead with four holes to play vanished in less than an hour. He was 10 under par, just one over for his round, through 14 holes, but his short and long game came undone and he couldn't make a par the rest of the way.
"Well, I've got to figure it out still," said Els, who came into the week ranked 40th in the world and was still dazed by the late turn of events. "Obviously I'm so happy that I've won. But I've been on the other end more times than I've actually been on the winning end, so to speak. And it's not a good feeling."
Els's caddie, Ricci Roberts, began to tear up when he spoke of giving Scott a hug as the young Australian left the media tent. Els, of South Africa, and Scott are Presidents Cup teammates every two years. They know each other well, and spoke briefly after the round in the scorer's hut.
"I really said to him, 'I'm sorry how things turned out,' " Els said. "I told him that I've been there many times and you've just got to bounce back quickly. Don't let this thing linger. So yeah, I feel for him. But thankfully he's young enough. He's 32 years old. He's got the next 10 years that he can win more [majors] than I've won. I've won four now; I think he can win more than that."
Three weeks ago Els's on-again, off-again caddie, Roberts -- who jokes that they've been married and divorced more times than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor -- made a scouting trip to Lytham and realized the place was still perfectly suited to his boss's game. Els had tied for second at Lytham in 1996, and tied for third there in '01. The greens are relatively flat, which takes some stress off his putting, which in the last five years has been the weakest point of his game.
Roberts called Els to share his enthusiasm, and when Els got to Lytham for the Open he began to feel he was on the verge of something good.
Scott also has struggled with his putting, but his results have improved dramatically since he switched a broom-handle putter at the start of last year. It was on the greens that he first began to falter Sunday. He missed par putts on 15 and 16 -- the second one from inside five feet -- to drop to eight under par. His lead was two for the second time; Els still needed to make something happen.
Els split the 18th fairway with his drive, and his approach shot checked up roughly 20 feet left of the pin. He made the birdie putt to get to seven under, just a shot off the lead, and he threw his ball into the grandstands as the crowd roared.
Scott knew what had just happened when he heard the cheers, and he responded by hitting a good tee shot followed by the swing he regretted most. With a 6-iron from 176 yards into the par-4 17th hole, he missed left and watched his ball nestle into the rough -- instant bogey. "I turned it over into the 17th," Scott said. "It wasn't a good shot."
"The putt on 16 was huge for him, to miss that," said McDowell, who played with the runner-up and told him to keep his chin up. "He hit a great drive down the middle of 17, and half of England right of that pin, and he missed it left."
He compounded the mistake by knocking his drive into a pot bunker on 18. He looked finished, but he pitched out before striping his third shot to within 12 feet of the pin. His par putt, which would have forced a playoff, missed left.
Woods started the day five shots behind Scott and made five straight pars before getting stuck in a pot bunker on the par-4 sixth hole and making a triple-bogey. His first shot from the sand hit the sod wall and came back at him, nearly hitting him, which would have been a two-stroke penalty. Still in the bunker, he had to get on his knees to play the next shot, which ricocheted off the sod wall and onto the front of the green, nowhere near the pin. He three-putted for a seven.
Although he birdied the next hole, the par-5 seventh, to get back to four under par, Woods kept chasing birdies with bogeys and never seriously threatened.
Aside from Woods, the usual bold-faced names had a tough week. Phil Mickelson shot 73-78 in benign, mostly wind-free conditions, and came nowhere near making the cut. It was his worst showing in a major in recent memory.
Rory McIlroy shot an opening-round 67, but fell apart with rounds of 75-73-73, and his play will be forgotten long before his generosity. After nailing a young fan in the head, McIlroy paid for the stricken fan's hotel room and dinner.
"It's a 20-year career," McIlroy said. "So I'm not going to get too wound up just over a few weeks. I've got to keep working away, plugging away, working hard and working on the right things and eventually it will come around."
After beginning the day with a four-stroke lead over playing partner Graeme McDowell (75, two under, T5) and Snedeker, Scott faltered with a bogey at the first hole but got the stroke right back with a birdie at the second. His lead over Snedeker was only two after six holes, but Snedeker made back-to-back doubles on 7 and 8, and Scott steadied himself with pars before a birdie on the 14th hole.
Then came the collapse that prompted one reporter to ask him if he now knows how his countryman and boyhood idol Greg Norman felt. "I thought he was a great role model," Scott said, "how he handled himself in victory and defeat.
"Next time -- I'm sure there will be a next time -- I can do a better job of it."
Els had another hero in mind: His son, Ben, 9, who has autism. Whenever Ernie practices back in Jupiter, Fla., Ben is with his dad. He loves the sound of the ball whizzing off the club, and the trajectory it makes across the sky. Ben and his sister, 13-year-old Samantha, watched the golf with their mom, Ernie's wife, Liezl, from the family's London home Sunday. Els could picture them as he tried to win the claret jug for the second time. Ben gets excited when he watches his dad, thus Ernie's goal, his swing thought as he stood over putts: Keep Ben excited.
"Ben, he's coming through now nicely," Els said. "You guys should see him. He's a wonderful boy now, a bright boy. We're going to have a lot of fun."