Wednesday 21 February 2018

Open Championship: The human story behind Ernie Els dramatic last gasp victory at Royal Lytham

Adam Scott
slumps to his
knees after missing
a putt on the
18th green
Adam Scott slumps to his knees after missing a putt on the 18th green
Open Champion Ernie Els commiserates with runner up Scott
Graeme McDowell searches for a lost ball at the 11th hole
Tiger Woods has to improvise to play a bunker shot at The Open

Karl MacGinty

THERE was a real human story behind the golfing one as Ernie Els became Open champion again at Royal Lytham.

Between his two victories 10 years apart Els and his wife Liezl have become major fund-raisers after the discovery when he was seven that their son Ben has autism.

They moved their main home from Wentworth to Florida and established the "Els for Autism Foundation".

They also launched a campaign to raise £20million for a Centre of Excellence, committing £4million of their own money. The land is now bought and it is hoped it will open next year.

On his website Els writes about the years he and Liezl suspected something was wrong with Ben, now nine.

"I mean, there's a process that every kid goes through. Crawl at nine months, walk at 12 months, and then start talking and so on.

"With Ben we started thinking 'Why is he not crawling, why is he not walking, why is he not looking me in the eye?' - things like that. We soon discovered he was quite severely touched by autism.

"One in 110 children is affected by autism and that was perhaps the most shocking thing about all of this. It hits the whole family hard.

"For a long time you are trying to figure out what just happened to my life. You feel sorry for yourself and for your kid and for your family.

"And the tragedy is that even in this day and age, the kid who has autism is often forgotten about. The feeling is that he's almost a waste of time, which says a lot more about society than it does the child. It's heart-breaking.

"Years from now people may remember me as a golfer and a major champion, but I'd like also to be remembered as somebody who took the issue of autism and did something with it.

"The rest of my life I'll be fighting this thing."

Els emerged from the carnage of Royal Lytham and St Annes with the Claret Jug tucked under his arm, but Sunday at the 141st British Open will be remembered forever as the day yet another polished Australian imploded on the cusp of victory.

Adam Scott was 15 when Greg Norman threw away the 1996 US Masters and admits he cried when he saw his boyhood hero so grievously wounded.

Scott may not yet enjoy the same iconic status as Norman but the nature of his collapse, as he closed with four successive bogeys to finish one shy of Els, was just as shocking and almost defies explanation.

"It was a very sloppy finish by me and I'm disappointed to finish that way after playing so well all week," said the 32-year-old, who didn't expect to shed any tears on his own account.

"I don't think I will. Maybe there'll be a little more disappointment when I get home and wind down. I feel fine at the moment -- I'm a positive guy, an optimist, and want to take all the good stuff I did this week and use it for the next time," added Scott, saying he hoped to take this setback with the same dignity as Norman in '96.

Four ahead of Els after a morale-boosting birdie at 14 had lifted him back to 10-under for the championship, Scott appeared to have his first Major title in the bag.

A capricious westerly breeze was blowing in off the sea, but with the combination of Scott's superior ball-striking and the experience of his caddie Steve Williams, who was at Tiger Woods' side for all but one of his Major successes, the 32-year-old appeared almost invulnerable.

Then Scott's waking nightmare began. There was only a frisson of concern as he dropped a shot after finding trouble in a bunker at 15, his first missed green since the sixth hole.

It grew to a wail when he made an awful bogey from mid-fairway at 16, pulling his approach into another greenside bunker there. Scott's escape looked good but a gasp of astonishment erupted from the crowd when he then missed from 39 inches for his par.

The alarm bells in Scott's head must have grown to a cacophony after his second shot at 17. Though he had heard the thundering roar which erupted in salute to the magnificent 15-foot putt made by Els at 18, Scott actually hit a sweet tee shot down the penultimate hole.

What happened next stunned even his playing companion, Graeme McDowell. Indeed, the Portrush man's own disappointment at posting a final-round 75 to match that of Scott was put firmly in perspective by the Australian's horrible demise.

"No, I'm not splattered on the floor in disappointment right now," said McDowell, whose 2010 US Open victory in testing conditions at Pebble Beach led many to think he would once again emerge as the last man standing from a gruelling final day at Lytham.

"I'm just a little frustrated that I've got off to a flat start twice now in the final round of a Major," admitted the Ulsterman, referring back to Sunday at last month's US Open at Olympic, where he finished runner-up.

"But I'm taking positives away from this. It's another great learning experience for me. I guess my disappointment kind of seems relatively stupid in relation to the guy I've just seen lose the Open Championship," added McDowell, who earned €246,324 in a share of fifth with Luke Donald on two-under, five behind four times Major champion Els. McDowell was staggered by what he witnessed on the fairway at 17.

"Adam struggled on the greens a little bit today, we all did, and missing that putt on 16 was huge. But after hitting a great drive down 17, he'd half of England right of that pin and he missed it left. That was a cardinal mistake," said McDowell, adding: "Eighteen (where Scott took three-wood on the tee and failed to carry the fairway bunkers before pulling left the eight-foot putt for par and a place in the play-off) is a tough tee shot, let's be honest.

"But after bogeying 16 and making a cardinal mistake on 17, Adam will be heartbroken right now. It's hard to watch a guy do that."

Scott confirmed that ill-fated 168-yard six-iron at 17 "was the one shot I look at and am most disappointed about. As I looked up and saw the line it was on, I knew it was riding the wind too early to hold its line."

McDowell's own hopes of winning a second Major title had expired much earlier. He rued taking three-wood and not driver off the second tee, where he landed in a trap and made bogey, easing a little pressure on Scott, who had bogeyed the first hole but birdied there to move five ahead of the Ulsterman.

There was little he could do about another dropped shot at six; after his ball rolled so close to the face of a greenside bunker, he prodded it back into the middle of the trap.

Tiger's hopes effectively were obliterated moments earlier from an identical lie in the same bunker. After failing by millimetres to make a memorable escape, Woods had to twist sideways like a matador as his ball ricocheted past his shoulder into an even worse position by the left wall of the trap.

Playing his next from a semi-lotus position on the grass, Tiger somehow got it out but then three-putted for his first triple-bogey at the Open since losing a ball off his opening tee shot in 2003 at Sandwich. Still, he seemed satisfied with a share of third with fellow American Brandt Snedeker on three-under after his closing 73.

Woods replaces Rory McIlroy at No 2 in the world rankings and will go to next month's US PGA at Kiawah Island with high hopes of reclaiming the top spot.

To his credit, McDowell appeared untroubled by his minor setback at six and rolled in a nine-foot putt for birdie at eight to get within three of Scott.

Yet his hopes of building momentum into the back nine took a telling blow at the par-three ninth, where he over-clubbed and airmailed the green on the way to a gut-wrenching bogey.

McDowell dropped further shots at 10 and then 11, where he snap-hooked his second into bushes, later describing that effort with his three-wood as "the sort of shot a 15-handicap would play".

Several minutes fruitlessly searching for his ball, followed by a buggy ride back down the fairway for the reload, did little for McDowell's morale, but that errant tee shot at nine was the pivotal moment in his round.

Els joined the lexicon of great Open champions at Lytham courtesy of a sweet final-round 68, which featured four birdies on the back nine. Like Darren Clarke at Sandwich, the South African is 42 and claims the Claret Jug after several years of self-doubt.

Persistent nightmares on the green persuaded Els to swallow his pride and reservations and take up the belly putter last year and now he has become the third winner in four Majors to wield this controversial instrument.

Though Els was a hugely popular winner as he wrapped a fourth Major title to go with two US Opens and the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2002, a remarkable championship at Lytham will be remembered far longer for Scott's nightmare finish.

Irish Independent

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