Golf: Els roars to Open triumph

by JOHN GREECHAN, Daily Mail

Ernie Els overcame his own frailties to clinch his first Open Championship yesterday, finally triumphing at the fifth extra hole in the tournament's first ever four-man play-off.

The genial and popular South African blew his chance to win over 72 holes by surrendering a two-shot lead over the closing holes.

But eventually a superb bunker shot helped him see off the challenge of Frenchman Thomas Levet just before 8pm on a glorious evening at Muirfield, Aussie pair Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington having succumbed after four extra holes.

By then the pre-Open favourite Tiger Woods was already over the Atlantic heading back to Florida in his private jet.

Els, reflecting on the double-bogey five at the 16th which almost destroyed his chance of even making the play-off, admitted that a painful loss could have sent his career into a disastrous tailspin.

'You can only take so much,' said Els. 'Some careers could have ended like this. If you look at some of the guys who lost in the Masters or who have lost this tournament before, some people just never recover.

'I won't say I would have been one of them if I didn't win, but I would have been a really different person after this.

'Now, in a good way, I am a different person. I am back on track and I can legitimately try to win majors.

'I felt as if I had lost it at the 16th. After the five there I was almost gone, it was the lowest point of my week. I was under unbelievable pressure.

'Walking off the green, a lot went through my mind. "Is this the way to lose a major championship? Is this the way you want to be remembered, screwing up an Open Championship?"

'Somehow I pulled myself together. I guess I've got a little bit of fight in me when it counts.'

The quartet who finished on 278 for the tournament set off in two pairs, and Elkington and Appleby both fell out of the contest at the fourth extra hole, the 18th, as all four men struggled to overcome their nerves.

Levet and Els went back to the tee to begin sudden-death play and, though both found bunkers, the Frenchman could only hack out of his fairway sand, taking a bogey five.

The South African hit a magnificent recovery from his greenside bunker and holed a five-foot putt for the title.

Clutching the famous Claret Jug, Els added: 'There were times when I never thought I would get my hands on this. This was one of the hardest tournaments I've ever had to play in and it's been the most rewarding.

'At the end of 72 holes, I was lost. I spoke to my wife Liezl and my sports psychologist, Jos Vanstiphout, and we agreed that the next four holes would be the most important of my career.

'Sending us off in two two-balls, instead of all four together, was a little break for me. Being in the second group, I had time to compose myself, get a sandwich - I started feeling a little better.

'I arrived here without much confidence and I'm leaving as Open champion. It's been an incredible journey.'

Levet was quick to praise the champion. 'Ernie deserves it. He is a great champion and he played really well all week long,' he said.

'I came from behind, it's not funny to win when somebody drops shots. He pulled it back, so I am happy for him.'

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