Brutish Open: Ernie Els wins 2002 British Open at Muirfield

March 29, 2010

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.

From his first shot, which fell in knee-high fescue, Woods cut a Kilroy-like figure on Saturday, often visible only from the chest up. When he wasn’t obscured by high rough, he was in Muirfield’s bunkers, many of which resemble open manholes. Woods had a 42 at the turn and looked tortured, King Lear with an L-wedge, until he finally holed a birdie putt on 17, removed his cap and bowed theatrically to the gallery. He was, at once, thoroughly defeated by his 81 and entirely resigned to this, his worst round as a professional. Afterward—even more than in victory—he was gracious, humble and immediately well-adjusted. “I tried all the way around,” he said. “I don’t bag it. I tried on each and every shot, and that’s the best I could have shot. I tried. And unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.” With that, for all practical purposes, Elvis had left the building.

“Seeing it happen to the best player in the world, possibly the best ever to play the game, shows that anyone can look silly out there,” said Scott McCarron, who likened weather conditions at this Brutish Open to those at the San Francisco City Championship.

While finishing second in 19 majors, Jack Nicklaus became golf’s most graceful loser. Woods showed the same equanimity at Muirfield, where Nicklaus’s Slam died in 1972. “Sometimes,” said Woods, “the media and everybody tend to lose perspective on how difficult it is to win a major.”

Indeed, the course had proved not only Tiger-proofed but also Scotch-guarded: Colin Montgomerie—who shot a 64 on Friday to put himself in contention—followed up with an 84 on Saturday, tying the record for greatest stroke differential in consecutive rounds at the Open. Monty, the most talented player save Phil Mickelson never to have won a major, would shoot 75 on Sunday and look inconsolable, like one of the ghosts Els was determined not to become. “I’m very, very disappointed,” Montgomerie said of (and to) the British reporters fond of lampooning him. “I’m really hurt by [the abuse]. Really hurt.” He said he was pulling out of his next two tournaments because “I can’t handle it anymore.”

For everyone but Monty, Sunday was gorgeous; white-chalk clouds in a baby-blue sky. “A day like this is absolute heaven,” said Price, though Woods—following his 65—expressed his desire to get home to Orlando and put on shorts. On this Sunday it was Els who wore red, and he felt the charge of oncoming bulls. Still, Els had that one-stroke lead going into the 186-yard 16th, having only to land a seven-iron on the green. He did, but the ball rolled off the left side and down a steep embankment. He then thinned a 60-degree wedge to the front of the green and off, into a small valley. His next chip ran 10 feet past the pin, and Els missed the putt on his way to double bogey and, for all he knew, oblivion. “I would have been a different person,” Els said later, “if I didn’t recover.”

So he pulled out driver on the 546-yard, par-5 17th and hit it 306 to a fairway the width of a produce aisle. Els made birdie (and very nearly eagle), parred the 449-yard, par-4 18th and found himself in a four-way playoff with Australia’s Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby and Thomas Levet of France. Before the four-hole, two-ball format began, Els ate a sandwich, reflecting that a Sandwich—the site of the 2003 Open—would eat him next year, and perhaps forever after, if he blew this major. Did he think that losing on Sunday would have consigned him to an Open-less future? Said Els, in his South African

accent, “Yis.”

Those who have never contended on a Sunday evening for a major championship cannot conceive of the attendant anxiety. “It is so difficult to hold it together,” said Evans, who missed the playoff by a stroke. “I mean, these top guys…how these guys hit these shots, I don’t know. It’s a different world to me.” Without the brother from another planet—Woods—in the picture, the claret jug was anyone’s. Els has won two U.S. Opens, but the last was five years ago. “I still play like a man with a lot of talent who can win,” said Els. “But I also play pretty poorly now and then.”

His future at stake—”I’m pretty hard on myself,” said Els—he played the four-hole playoff at even par. Trouble was, so did Levet, forcing a sudden-death playoff on 18. There, heads kept popping in and out of blank squares on the big yellow scoreboard. It looked like a human glockenspiel.

Seagulls keening overhead, Els hit his two-iron to the center of the fairway, while Levet hit driver, as he had all day on 18, and found a fairway bunker. The Frenchman got on in three, 40 feet away. Els’s second shot fell in the back of a greenside bunker, giving him an extraordinarily awkward stance: He had one foot in and one foot out, was half in sun and half in shadow, an apt position for a man whose golfing future was—at this very instant—at a fork in the road. Els swung his wedge. The ball alighted, like a butterfly, five feet from the pin.

After Levet putted out for 5, Els had those five feet to win at Muirfield, where in 1992 he had tied for fifth in his first Open as a professional. In the decade since, he has gotten married, fathered a daughter and earned a fortune, but in the last few years played Avis to Tiger’s Hertz. Which may be why, when Els drained the putt on Sunday, he joyously threw his cap into the sky, a Mary Tyler Moore of the moors.

Levet hugged him and then hoisted the 6’3″ Els as if he were the runner-up trophy, which is in fact a small silver salad plate. Els knows, having accepted it two years ago after finishing eight strokes behind Woods, who was somewhere up in the ether right now, along with Els’s golf cap. Earlier, on the 17th tee in regulation, Els, pondering possible defeat, thought he might become a different person. “And now,” he said, “in a better way, I am.”