Els gets what he wants with British Open win

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 22, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland -- The major championship Tiger Woods needed to win was the one Ernie Els wanted the most.

On the verge of blowing the tournament and with doubts again flooding his mind, Els regrouped on Sunday to win the British Open.

As the sun faded on a Scottish summer day, he held the claret jug that had his name engraved on it, fighting his way through a tangle of emotions to try and describe just how much it meant.

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''People have lost here before and some people just never recover,'' Els said. ''I wouldn't say I would have been one of them, but I would have really been a different person.''

Woods already was jetting across the Atlantic when Els finished off Frenchman Thomas Levet, the last of four playoff contenders, with his third par of the day on the 18th hole.

He didn't face down Woods, whose chances of a third straight major championship ended with a fat 81 on Saturday.

But Els did finally confront the self doubts that have haunted him and threatened to ruin his career. After years of questioning his ability and wondering out loud if he could ever beat Woods, that may have been just as good.

''Now I'm back on track. I can now legitimately try and win the majors,'' he said.

Els' confidence had been beaten down almost every time he entered a major since winning the second of his U.S. Opens in 1997. Those titles came before Woods started to dominate, and Els had won no majors since.

The 32-year-old South African, known as the Big Easy for his laid-back demeanor and effortless swing, finished second to Woods six times, twice in majors. He was so discouraged about his chances this week he was utterly pessimistic after a practice round.

''When I've played well, Tiger still has beaten me,'' Els said on Tuesday. ''What do you do? I work hard at everything in my game. When I've had it going, I still got beat. Maybe I'm not good enough, then. Who knows?''

Els, though, was good enough on Saturday when he played his way to a masterful 72 in the driving rain and wind that took Woods' game apart. And with Woods safely out of the way Sunday, Els had a two-stroke lead and all the expectations on his shoulders.

Then a poor 7-iron to the left of the green on the 16th hole brought back the negative thoughts Els can seemingly never shake. He chipped over the green and back on, missing a putt and making double bogey.

With two holes to go, he was one down. Now he couldn't afford to get any more down on himself.

''Walking off 16, a lot of things went through my mind. I was like, 'Is this a way to lose another major. Is this the way you want to be remembered by, screwing up in an Open championship?''' Els said. ''I'm pretty hard on myself as it is, and that wasn't one of my finer moments. Somehow I pulled myself together and made some good shots again.''

Els hit a driver down the middle of the par-5 17th, carved a 3-iron onto the green and made birdie. On the final hole he had a 20-foot birdie putt to win outright, but missed it.

Els found himself in a four-man playoff over four holes. He was playing with Stuart Appleby, while up ahead Levet and Steve Elkington played as a twosome.

First, though, Els huddled with his psychologist, Jos Vanstiphout, as he tried to compose himself. Negative vibes were coming in again, this time about previous failures in playoffs.

Els was about to play for the title of his career. And he was down in the dumps again.

''He just basically agreed that I had four more holes to play,'' Els said. ''And those four holes were the most important holes of my career. I was going to give it 100 percent.''

His mind fortified, Els drank an orange juice and grabbed a sandwich. He stood on the first tee chewing it down, then promptly blasted his drive down the middle of the fairway.

Els made four straight pars and, when Levet bogeyed the 18th after making a long birdie putt two holes earlier, he and Levet went head to head in the first sudden-death playoff in the 142-year history of the British Open.

It didn't last long.

Levet hit his drive into a fairway bunker and laid up short of the green. Els had a 7-iron in his hand and the Open in his grasp, only to pull it into the greenside bunker left of the hole.

From there, he played an excellent bunker shot, bracing himself with his right leg outside the bunker and flopping the ball within five feet. When Levet missed his 30-footer for par, Els stepped up and made his putt.

Relieved and exhilarated, Els took off his cap and tossed it in the air. A moment later, Levet hoisted him in victory.

''I lost to a great player. He's a big man, very talented,'' Levet said. ''That bunker shot at the last was a piece of nerves. It could have gone anywhere.''

That could easily have been said about Els' career had he lost this tournament. He honed his game on the European tour, and this was the one he really wanted.

''At times I really thought I would never put my hands on this,'' Els said as he held the claret jug. ''It was one of the hardest tournaments I ever had to play and one of the most rewarding -- the most rewarding.''

Els came to Muirfield with little confidence and ended up with the Open championship.

''It was truly hard work but nobody said it was going to be easy,'' Els said.

No they didn't. Not even for the Big Easy. The Associated Press