Ernie Els once again displayed grace that has served him well in victory and defeat
Some U.K. airport -- Manchester or Glasgow or Heathrow -- is always crawling with golf people on the morning after the Open, and so it was on Monday. At the Manchester Airport, in the north of England, you could see players, caddies, officials, writers. And fans wearing $100 Open shirts, in techy fabrics and garish colors that are the height of style now but will flood the charity shops before too long.
The great British papers -- The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent --were filled with the golf on Monday, of course, though Ernie's win and Adam's collapse took a natural backseat to the Tour de France. Britain has a genuine sports hero (goodbye forever Eddie the Eagle), and the Olympics are about to start in London. What a time to be a Briton. Bradley Wiggins has done with a bike what a foursome of English golfers, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald and Lee Westwood and Paul Casey, have been unable to do with their sticks: win the big one.
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The British rooting interest in that golfing foursome is intense, no matter how much time the lads spend playing in the U.S. (Asked why he was moving to the United States, Westwood said recently, "Because of the English winter, and the English summer.") Meanwhile, biding time, the Kingdom would have been happy to claim an Adam Scott victory as one for the crown, because the Aussie has Scottish and Welsh bloodlines and knows and appreciates his own family history.
But Ernie suited the islanders just fine, likely for one reason above all: his grace in victory (Muirfield 2002, Lytham 2012) and in defeat (Troon 2004, in a playoff with Todd Hamilton).
Maybe I overdo the grace thing, but I do think it's important. The thrill of covering Tiger Woods has been watching him play golf, and I've said too many times that his sex life is no business of mine. (Jack Nicklaus, far more meaningfully, has said the same.) But the thing that has made Woods unsatisfying for me is that he's simply ungracious in defeat and even in victory. I could sort of understand it at his U.S. Amateur victory in '95, over Buddy Marucci. In his play and in his post-victory remarks, he struck me as hugely self-absorbed. But that comes with teenage territory, right? But the fact is, he's never figured it out, that Sunday afternoon at a golf tournament brings together a whole bunch of people, the guy who just lost to you chief among them.
Maybe he can't help it. Maybe it's just in his DNA. But Nicklaus and Tom Watson and Lee Trevino were never like that. Nick Faldo was, until that '96 Masters when Greg Norman collapsed and, when it was all over, they collapsed in each other's arms. And they didn't even like each other. The two of them, commiserating on the final green, lifted the game and each other.
Sunday's spectacle at Lytham had some of that. Els, at every opportunity, expressed the anguish he felt for Scott. Scott expressed his appreciation.
The man didn't choke. He simply played the last four holes imperfectly. His hard-earned cushion would have supported two mistakes. Even three. But not four.
Nicklaus, watching on TV from far away, commiserated. He was reminded of his own bogey-bogey finish in the '63 Open at Lytham, which kept him one shot out of a playoff won by the New Zealander Bob Charles. "He got unlucky on 17 and 18 and ended up in places he couldn't play from," Nicklaus said of Scott on Sunday night, by e-mail. Regarding 15, 16, 17 and 18, Nicklaus said, "Those might be as tough a four holes as there are in the British Open rota."
He said: "We all feel badly for Adam Scott. But I don't think you can take anything away from Ernie's win." Ernie lives at The Bear's Club, a North Palm Beach real-estate development founded by Nicklaus. Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, have been active in Els's efforts to raise money for autism research, and it was Barbara who first suggested to Ernie and his wife, Liezl, that living in North Palm Beach might be a better fit for them than Orlando, where they had been living.
"To shoot 32, to play the final nine holes in four under par, is absolutely fantastic," Nicklaus said. "Ernie has worked hard to get to this point, and he handled himself with grace and like the champion he is." Grace. There's that word again. Showing grace doesn't mean you have to do things all preppy and proper and Southern, like some bad imitation of Bobby Jones. Lee Trevino -- no college, tats on his arms -- was loaded with grace, a grace that was all his own. He was beloved by some and admired by everybody else. Grace is a state of mind, a statement about how you feel about the human race.
I think Woods is in a new period of his golfing life and he will (IMHO) win majors, plural, again. He remains the best talent in golf, by far. But if Lytham offered us any kind of insight into what he's thinking, he's doing things differently now. He must realize that the talent gap has narrowed since his last major victory, in 2008. At Lytham, he played cautious golf, out of the Jack Nicklaus playbook, with many irons off tees, seeking to par the course to death and waiting, as Nicklaus famously did, for others to make mistakes. The old "hanging around" thing. Had Tiger made par on six instead of triple, I believe he might well have won the tournament. His swing looks great. Enough about his swing. The mechanics of his swing are not the issue. Time to consider bigger things.
It's hard to know with Tiger whom he's playing for, or what. Yes, Jack has 18 majors and Tiger has 14. And yes, Sam Snead has 82 Tour wins and Tiger has 74. But Tiger's won those majors by beating the world. The fields Nicklaus defeated in his five PGA titles and six Masters titles and four U.S. Opens were overwhelmingly American. Yes, he beat, and was beaten by, a lot of leather-necked men who did not scare, and this time I'll limit my list to Hubert Green and Hale Irwin and Dave Stockton. But golf in Australia, Korea, Continental Europe and South Africa was nothing like what it is today. (There's the talent, there's the growing international golf population, there's more jet travel to get a guy to the big events.) Woods's 12 victories in Asian and European tour events were surely as hard-earned as many of Snead's lesser wins. You could make a case that Woods has already achieved more than anybody who has ever played the game. The traditionalist in me won't go further than that, but if you want to, knock yourself out.
What's a mystery to me is what, exactly, motivates Woods now. In his three victories this year, for whom was he winning? Maybe himself. Maybe. And maybe he's finding that winning for himself is not enough. After winning at Bay Hill, he drove home to Jupiter Island, Fla., with a turkey sandwich for company.
There have been many cool glimpses of an evolving man. He's more engaged with his playing partners than he's ever been. He's more relaxed in his pre-tournament press conferences. He's bringing his caddie, Joe LaCava, in for putting-green reads way more than he ever did with Steve Williams. His golf skill is still astounding, and he's always been smart. His appreciation for golf history has always been profound. I loved how Woods talked about Billy Casper's 1966 U.S. Open win at Olympic when he was at Olympic for this year's U.S. Open. He seems like a guy you could have a real conversation with, and maybe he does have conversations, behind a high wall somewhere. Els played Lytham the opposite of Tiger, assertively, with a lot of drivers. I asked him Sunday night if he had compared field notes with Woods. They're friends, or at least friendly. Ernie gave me a look that said, You're joking, right? What he said was, "The man's a vault." As a public figure, Tiger's lacking. He's still fighting the whole idea that he is a public figure.
Ernie's not like that. He'll talk to you about his son's autism, his putting woes, his lost chances, his admiration for Nelson Mandela, his sympathy for Adam Scott, his wins, his insecurities. He won the Lytham Open, he said, by making putts for his son, Ben. Maybe that notion's too quaint for Tiger. Winning one for the Gipper, that whole thing, it does sound vaguely ridiculous. But one might also ask why any talented person keeps going once he has made his mark? Why did Marc Chagall keep trying to paint God and why did F. Scott Fitzgerald keep trying to write love and why did Paul McCartney keep trying to sing what was in our hearts? Why will Bradley Wiggins try to win the Tour de France again next year? There's fame and fortune and ego and satisfaction and the innate desire to do more, do more, do more, and maybe those are the things that motivate Tiger. I really have no idea.
With Ernie, I have a slightly better idea -- we all do -- because you can talk to him. When I think of Ernie I think of Saturday night at the 2004 Open, in the little Scottish seaside village of Troon, when he was looking to win his second Open. He was the man to beat through 54 holes, and he and his family were renting a house right in town, a short walk from the course. The four of them walked out of the clubhouse, hand in hand, and strolled down the street, stone houses on one side, the sea on the other. Kids whizzed by on bikes, looking for a signature or a snap or a hello. Ernie, Easy himself, obliged, of course. And I thought to myself: poor Tiger, he can't do that. Why, I don't know. But he can't.