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Rejuvenated Ernie Els won an intriguing British Open after a historic collapse by Adam Scott

Ernie Els, Adam Scott, 2012 British Open
Thomas Lovelock/SI
It was Els's second Open win and fourth major title.

In the end, you see, it matters. You can look like a movie star, date celeb­rities, fly on private planes, make friends wherever you go with your openness and charm and good manners. (Here's looking at you, Adam Scott.)

But if you're a golfer, especially a golfer from somewhere other than the U.S., the British Open matters more than words can say.

And unfortunately for Scott, the 32-year-old Australian golfer with Tiger's old swing and old caddie, he let his clubs do the talking in the final round of the Open.

Bogey on 15 (bad approach shot). Bogey on 16 (bad putt). Bogey on 17 (bad ­approach shot). Bogey on 18 (bad line). Four straight 5s.

And with that, that bogey on the home hole, Ernie Els won golf's oldest championship from Royal Lytham's practice putting green, hard by the old redbrick clubhouse in which Bobby Jones knotted bow ties and into which Seve Ballesteros breathed life.

Els couldn't see the 18th green from his pseudo work station. But he could hear. The groans told him that Scott's eight-foot par putt did not drop. Els had won.

As the Royal & Ancient's silversmith again engraved an Afrikaner surname on the claret jug -- Oosthuizen­ was etched on it only two years ago -- Adam Scott's name was making the rounds on the Internet, keeping company with Jean Van de Velde (1999 British Open), Ed Sneed ('79 Masters) and Arnold Palmer ('66 U.S. Open). It has come to this: #majormeltdown.

Els, a South African who lives in South Florida, near Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, now has four major ­championships: two U.S. Opens and two British Opens. Before Lytham, his last major win came 10 years ago at Muirfield. This year he did not qualify for the Masters, and he slipped into the U.S. Open almost on the trading deadline. Now he's guaranteed a spot in the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship through 2017.

Els is 42, the same age Darren Clarke was when he won last year's British Open. Clarke took the jug around the world and danced with it, and has been on an epic 0-fer for a year now. (He hasn't had a top 10 since his victory. Last week he missed the cut by four shots.) Els needs to be careful: He could pull a DC. They both like pub life, they are both big, amiable men with a hidden, or nearly hidden, edgy streak. But the guess here is that Els will use his extend-a-career card well.

He worked hard to get it. His putt­ing was so poor in March, he said, “people were laughing at me.” He sought professional advice, technical and mental, and he had an hourlong conversation with Nicklaus that inspired him more than Big Jack knows. The main thing Nicklaus remembers telling Ernie, he said on Sunday night, “is that he has a lot of golf left in him.”

Els uses a belly putter, a club that even he has said the governing bodies (your R&A, your USGA) should outlaw. To use it, you bend over and stick the end of the club in your naval. You overwhelm the tendency to yip with your own body weight. Els's putt­ing, by the extreme standards of world-class golfers, has been horrible for years, even with the belly, and the Lytham greens, compared with the extreme standards of the PGA Tour, were slow and flat. In other words, we didn't learn that much about the state of Ernie's putt­ing last week. (Els ranked 71st on the greens, worst ever for a major winner.) What we did learn is that he can still flat-out flush the ball. The Open is always -- always -- won by a player who hits it flush. You can chip and putt your way to a green jacket but not to the title Champion Golfer of the Year.

Scott uses the belly's cousin, a long-­shafted putt­er. He holds the grip's end to his sternum with his left hand as he guides the putter back and through with his right. Nobody dreams about winning majors with a broomstick, and nobody has done it yet. But for three days and most of a fourth, it looked as if it would happen.

During the first three still days -- calm ­stretches visit Open golf as often as the big blows for which the event is ­famous -- Scott putt­ed like Tiger, circa 2000. (Tiger himself looked terrific last week, albeit with a deeply conservative, Nicklausian game plan. He was undone by a Sunday triple bogey on the 6th, where he had to play one trap shot sprawled out on a cliff above a greenside bunker that had swallowed his ball, his left foot supporting his right knee.) For 54 holes, nearly all of Scott's putts were right at the hole, and when they didn't drop, he pretty much only had to tap in his Titleist. His rounds of 64, 67 and 68 on the par-70 inland linksland gave him a four-shot 54-hole lead over Brandt Snedeker and Graeme ­McDowell, his final-round playing partner.

On Sunday, when Scott was trying to win the first major of his respectable career, the wind arrived. Not a gale, but wind. “His putting was tentative from the 1st green,” said Ken Comboy, ­McDowell's caddie. Scott missed a four-foot par putt on the odd (but interesting) par-3 1st, and the tone was set. “When he looks back on this round, the thing he'll blame is his putt­ing,” said Comboy. “He simply couldn't get his putts to the hole.”

The long-shafted putter requires a long, flowing stroke, and you could argue that such a stroke becomes harder in the wind and under Sunday pressure. Scott will tell you -- politely, of course -- that's incorrect. “There's no validity to that kind of argument,” he said evenly. “It's hard putt­ing in windy conditions.”

In defeat, Scott's voice was nearly a monotone. In victory it's about the same. Inflection is not his thing. Sometimes you'll see him leaving a golf course in Chuck Taylors and blue jeans, sidekick Tim Clark beside him. They're always plotting something crazy, like a trip to Cheesecake Factory.

Scott has said, although in words less ­direct than this, that he hired Steve Williams, a truly aggressive personality, looking for an alter ego. He got what he wanted. At the 17th on Saturday, Scott and Williams looked at a garden-variety bunker shot. Scott assured Williams he could handle it, unassisted. When Scott stiffed the shot but did not hole it, Williams said, “I thought you had that one.” His tone was playful, but the message was out of the Tiger playbook: Whatever your lead is, expand it. That takes huge talent, which Scott has, and a certain fierceness, which he does not. Williams's job is to give it to him.

Old Stevie is a big presence in the game. Last August, when Scott won the World Golf Championship event in Akron, he was happy to let Williams, victorious for the first time since his acrimonious breakup with Woods, grab the spotlight. Williams did, telling David Feherty of CBS, “I'm a very confident front-runner.” It was unseemly.

Lytham reminded us, painfully, that it is the player who needs to be the confident front-­runner. At the conclusion of play Williams, by far the most successful caddie ever -- he has “won” 13 majors -- made a beeline to the car park, to a courtesy Mercedes, and declined a reporter's invitation to talk. He seemed distraught and out of sorts. His boss did not. Not at all. Scott was no different than he ever is, really. That's his character.

It's interesting but awful to be at a tournament where the leader kicks it away. At Lytham, as Nicklaus and Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson and others have done, Els showed that grace remains golf's greatest virtue. In victory he didn't talk about the spectacular four-under 32 he shot on the final nine holes. He said again and again how badly he felt for Scott, and how sure he was that Scott would have his moments, plural, in the sun. In the privacy of the scorer's trailer he told Scott, “I'm sorry how things turned out. Don't let this thing linger.” Nobody was screaming, “Par-TAY!” It was a wistful win.

Els knows the hurt of losing majors and other hurts much more profound. His nine-year-old son, Ben, is autistic, and Ernie and his wife, Liezl, have raised millions for autism research. “It's tough, man, because you have this big sportsman, 6' 4" Ernie Els, and he loves cricket and football and golf, and he'd love to do those things with his son, and he ­really can't,” Els's longtime caddie, Ricci Roberts, said on Sunday night. Els has lost long periods to stewing. “But at some point I had to say to him, ‘It is what it is. You have to get on with your life.' ”

Els said the same thing. He said he has learned to have his family life on one track and his golfing life on another. When he won on Sunday, Liezl, Ben and daughter ­Samantha, 13, were in London.

But the truth is that life's most complicated things don't separate out so neatly. Roberts realizes that. “Ernie knows when he wins, he's helping the autism fight,” he said. Roberts's boss said, “I made a lot of putts today with Ben in mind, because I know Ben's watching. I was trying to keep him ­excited, so I made a lot of putts for him today.” None was bigger than the 15-footer he dropped for birdie at the 72nd hole.

Els knows there are things more important in the world than winning the British Open. Maybe that's why he was able to snatch up a surprise victory on a windy day in Lancashire, when the leader rode a bogey train to second place, when Tiger invented a new yoga position and when a boy in London for whom words are a mystery cheered excitedly every time his father rolled in a putt, until there were no more putts to roll in. The Champion Golfer of the Year.


 

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