British Open Battling Muirfield's elements, self-doubt and three playoff foes, Ernie Els came back from the brink of calamity to win the claret jug

July 28, 2002

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.

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[degree] 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
Bjorn, 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."

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [T of C] FOCUS...FOCUS.... British Open champ Ernie Els (putting beneath TV cranes at Muirfield) will be under surveillance again at the PGA Championship next month. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH EASY DOES IT A heart-stopping five-footer on the first hole of sudden death finished off Levet and gave Els reason to exult. COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER GIMME SHELTER Saturday's gusty rain helped inflate Woods's score to a career-worst 81. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH BUNKER MENTALITY Els's feathery blast from an awkward stance set up the winning putt. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH STEEP PENALTY The 13th proved unlucky for Levet, who found a Muirfield manhole.

Els missed the putt on his way to double bogey and, for all he
knew, oblivion. "I would have been a different person," he said
later, "if I didn't recover."

"Seeing it happen to the best player in the world, possibly the
best ever, shows that anyone can look silly out there," said
Scott McCarron.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)