Els finds something special to rejoin the major elite
“Probably the best round of my life,” came the response from an aging talent who for a long time had sensed, perhaps with the rest of us, that his best days were behind him.
But in golf, age is no barrier.
It is all about feel, belief and ability.
If any major has reaffirmed this, it is the Open, which three years ago nearly produced the greatest sporting fairytale of all time when 59-year-old Tom Watson came within a shot of winning a sixth Open title.
Just last year, Darren Clarke became the people’s champion when he won his first major at Royal St George’s at the age of 42.
Els is the same age now as Clarke was 12 months ago.
As he was about leave Saturday’s light-hearted inquisition by the media huddle, Els was asked if there was anything that convinced him he might be able to pull off the unthinkable in the final round.
“For some reason I’ve got some belief this week,” he said.
“I feel something special can happen. I feel I’ve put in a lot of work the last couple of... let’s call it the last couple of years, especially the last couple of months.
“So something good is bound to happen, so hopefully it’s tomorrow.”
As Els departed the mixed zone, Tiger Woods, Graeme McDowell, Brandt Snedeker and Adam Scott were all still out on the course.
The Big Easy would start the final day six shots adrift of Scott, with the other three all positioned better to reel the elegant Australian in.
Els’s words, while ultimately prophetic, will have been no more of an afterthought to most as the attention turned to the leading three groups.
But as it turned out dramatically yesterday, Els was indeed capable of conjuring up something special.
And he didn’t even need his best round to do it. Just possibly, his best back nine.
He was two-over par for the day when he reached the turn yesterday, trailing Scott by the same six-shot margin by which he had began it.
Then came his charge through a chasing pack that was playing itself out of contention.
Els birdied the 10th, 12th and 14th.
But almost as important as the shots he picked up were those that he preserved.
He was still giving chase, but unlike the rest who were dropping shots, Els continued to at least register pars.
Until a glorious approach on the final hole and a 15-foot putt across the 72nd green for a birdie three and four-round total of 273.
Even then he was still two shots adrift, but almost the moment he posted seven under par, Scott dropped a shot on the 16th, his second successive bogey.
The collapse continued, and Els – speaking casually on the phone while on the practice ground – became Open champion again.
If it was a rather fortuitous victory yesterday – Els never once led the tournament – his fourth major, and second Open title has been long overdue.
His first Open win, coming five years after the second of his US Open triumphs, was a master class in links golf.
At Muirfield 10 years ago, contenders for the Claret Jug were blown off course in gale-force conditions on the Saturday, but not Els.
He stood tall, puffed his chest out, and eventually prevailed in a four-man play-off.
Two years later he should have been celebrating being ‘champion golfer of the year’ again but was beaten in a play-off by the unheralded American Todd Hamilton. Even before then, Els had finished third and second on his two previous Open visits to Lytham.
But it seemed Els’s chance had gone, until one of the most gifted players of his generation earned a fourth major title and his place in golfing lore.
While the heart rejoiced at the coronation of a great champion yesterday, it was hard not to feel deep sympathy for Scott.
For 68 holes the likeable Australian looked in complete control of his swing, his putting stroke and his emotions as a maiden major title beckoned.
Last year at Augusta he had one arm in the green jacket only for another South African, Charl Schwartzel, to accelerate past him and pinch it with four closing birdies.
At Lytham yesterday, he only had himself to blame.
Nerves and jitters are understandable, but after his birdie at the 14th re-established the four-shot lead he began the day with, Scott should have closed ranks and stuck to the patient approach that had served him so well until then.
Lytham was a course that in the main rewarded reserved play.
He should never have taken a three-wood off the 18th tee and brought the bunkers into play.Steve Williams, his highly controversial, but experienced caddie, should have handed him a two-iron and pointed him in the direction of the middle of the fairway.
Scott still showed his class by floating a wonderful approach shot to within 10 feet of the flag.
But the putt every young golfer dreams of having the chance to make with a major on the line slid by.
Scott greeted a collapse that will be remembered alongside some of the most infamous in the game’s history, with great dignity.
He is not the first to lose a four-shot lead. Rory McIlroy did it at Augusta last year when Scott nearly profited, and came back two months later to win the US Open.
Scott will be back.
For now, though, doff a cap in the direction of Els who found that something special to belatedly claim a second Claret Jug.