- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland The 131st British Open was definitely something Els.
One of the strangest claret jug scraps in history ended in fittingly bizarre fashion yesterday when Ernie Els survived a four-man playoff and his own fragile psyche to earn his third major championship victory.
The 32-year-old Els completed his claret jug coup with a brilliant sand save on the fifth playoff hole, rolling home a 4-foot par putt on Muirfield's 18th hole to edge obscure Frenchman Thomas Levet by one stroke.
"I don't know how I made that putt," said Els, who flipped his putter aside and flung his cap into the air after the final tester dropped. "I'm still a little bit in shock. It was a very tough day, but how do I feel? In a couple of hours, I will be out of my skin probably I didn't come here with a lot of confidence. I'm going to leave here as the Open champion. It's been a journey for me this week."
When Els, the overnight leader at 5-under, reached the 14th tee 8-under, it looked like that trip to a third major was likely to be a smooth ride. The South African was two strokes clear of the field. Major vulture Tiger Woods was already jetting back to Orlando, his Grand Slam dreams shattered by a Saturday 81. And Els must have been feeling bullet-proof after a miraculous sand save on No.13, where he produced a par from a monstrous gopher hole the Scots insist upon calling pot bunkers.
Even after Els dropped a shot at the 14th, nobody really heard alarms. But then came the 16th, and the most startling bit of butchery seen from a major leader since Jean Van de Velde committed competitive suicide at Carnoustie.
Els had been fighting a slight pull with his irons all day, and on the 186-yard, 16th he yanked a 7-iron long and left to the short side of the pin. He chose a lob wedge for his second, and proceeded to skull it all the way across the green. He then drilled his par chip 10 feet past the hole and missed the putt for a gruesome double bogey. Suddenly, the man who practically had his name engraved on the claret jug, was trailing the finished trio of Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington by a stroke.
"The double bogey on 16 was my worst ever," said Els, who admitted afterward he completely lost both his focus and his confidence after the disaster. "After that, I was really almost gone Walking off 16, a lot of things went through my mind. I was like, 'Is this the way to lose another major? Is this the way you want to be remembered, by screwing up in an Open championship?'"
Such unhealthy thoughts unfortunately are nothing new to Els, who regularly references a pessimistic little man who whispers nasty nothings into his ear in stressful situations. Earlier this year, he hired a sports psychologist (noted ego-booster Jos Vanstiphout) to help him with such distractions. But Vanstiphout was cringing behind the clubhouse when he star pupil began trailing emotional fumes.
Incredibly, Els pulled himself together enough to birdie the short par-5, 17th with two putts from 30 feet to once again grab a share of the lead at 6-under. But after coming up nearly two feet short with his mid-range birdie putt for the jug, the negative thoughts returned as he prepared for the Open's famous four-hole, stroke-play playoff.
"When I left that putt short and I signed my card, I was really pretty much down in the dumps," said Els, who had a one-shot lead on the 72nd hole in the 1994 U.S. Open, hooked his tee shot into the rough and scrambled to make bogey before prevailing in an 18-hole playoff. "I've been pretty well beat in playoffs for quite some time, and I did not have a good feeling. I spoke to my wife. I spoke to Jos, and I was really nowhere."
That tension was in his face, but not his game, as Els parred the four playoff holes (Nos.1, 16, 17 and 18) to dispatch Elkington and Appleby. Both Aussies bogeyed the 18th in the playoff to miss out on further action, leaving Levet and Els to return to the 18th tee for some sudden-death suspense. Elkington, it should be noted, hit 21 of 22 greens on the day (counting the fringe) but putted like a vertigo victim, missing the same five-footer on No.18 in both regulation and the playoff to yip away the Open.
On the fifth and final playoff hole, Levet was clearly out of his element. The world's 134th-ranked player, who managed to bogey the 18th three times in the same day, pulled his drive into left side fairway bunker on the 449-yard closing hole, wedged out and hit a weak pitching wedge 40 feet left of the pin. Els, who carded three pars on the hole, chose an iron off the tee and left himself 210 yards to the right-cut pin. But once again, Els' little man appeared when victory seemed imminent, and he pulled his approach into the back greenside bunker.
"Even at the last playoff hole, with him in trouble and the green wide open, I got him back again," said Els, describing his disconcerting visitor. "I guess I'll never get rid of him."
But just as he did at the 13th hole in regulation, Els executed a majestic shot from near-certain sandy doom. With his right leg splayed out above the lip of the bunker, Els made an almost effortless pass at the ball from the awkward stance, flipping the ball softly up on the surface and watching as it coasted 40 feet across the green to set up the winning putt.
"The one on No.13 was more difficult," said Els later of his two exquisite sand saves. "I still sometimes play like a man that's got a lot of talent and can play the game."
In the final analysis, perhaps its fortunate for golf that Els displayed just enough of that talent yesterday to win his first British Open. Because based on what Els shared later, the game might have lost one of its premier players if Els had blown yesterday's Open.
"If I didn't get it today, I don't think I would have ever gotten it," admitted Els, who has now re-asserted himself as one of Tiger's primary rivals. "It would have been a very hard loss if I hadn't won this jug.
"I guess you can only take so much. Some careers could have ended like this. People have lost here before, and some people never recover. I wouldn't say I would have been one of them if I didn't win, but I would have been a different person after this maybe. But now in a good way, I'm a different person. Now, I'm back on track. Now, I can now legitimately try and win majors."

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