Over the links of Muirfield, Ernie Els won the 131st playing of the Open Championship beating 2,200 contestants for the title of Champion Golfer of 2002.
It took all of the golfing reserves that he possessed, all the application, skill and determination at his disposal and 77 holes to do it.
In one of the most sphincter clenching championships of recent times, Els won and lost the tournament at least three times over the closing holes before he eventually prevailed after a four hole play off with Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington and Thomas Levet. He required a fifth extra sudden-death play-off hole with Levet, an able if undistinguished Frenchman who played and lost with the same reckless happy-go-lucky Gallic insouciance not seen since the Van de Velde debacle at the last hole at Carnoustie in 1999.
It would appear that French golfers take as much satisfaction, and doubtless credibility, out of losing as other nationalities takes out of winning. It is a charming trait that makes clear the origins of the Scots vernacular word 'gallus', which roughly translates as 'couldn't give a sh*t about anything'.
Muirfield was in excellent condition and was set up such that it was testing and fair. The rough was as penalising as it should be and, although here and there stretched a little, it was not of such length that all but the 'grip it and rip it' boys stood any chance of competing. It is certainly significant that both Nick Price and Corey Pavin, both noticeably short but unerringly straight off the tee, figured prominently. Muirfield demands invention as well as consistency, epitomising the best in links golf. Thankfully, the Championship Committee has resisted the pressure that Rambo and Co. have brought to golf in recent times and in the process reduced the game to a long driving contest for red-necks with jumbo drivers.
It is not unlikely that the 2002 Championship will be recorded in the US tabloid golfing press as the Open that the weather stole from Tiger Woods. It is true that the storm that struck on Saturday afternoon during the third round of play affected the outcome of the championship. Certainly the Tiger was in contention when he and O'Mera teed off, but so too were a great many others. The weather that hit the Tiger was the self-same weather that hit everyone else on the course. The simple fact is that many of the others handled the adverse weather conditions a great deal better than he did.
In the teeth of the gale no one in the field could hit the ball more than 200 yards and any lofted shot was in jeopardy. The Tiger was simply found wanting in these severe weather conditions.
But the Tiger who arrived on the first tee at just after 9am on Thursday morning was an altogether different Tiger from that which has gone before. While his playing partners, Justin Rose and Shigiki Maruyama, radiated joy and happiness, the Tiger looked drawn, tense and anxious. His body language was not that of the self-assured best golfer in the world, but more that of the stressed anxious neurotic. His shot from the first tee spoke volumes about his state of mind.
He stepped away from the address twice before blocking the ball into waist high rough. Berating first himself, he turned upon the posse of photographers pursuing him. Clearly the Tiger was not at peace with himself but he nevertheless made a miraculous par at the first and from then on gained some sort of composure.
His play, however, was not comparable with that which brought him the honours at Augusta and Bethpage. Continuous scrambling after wayward tee shots took its toll and his frustration erupted in mild temper tantrums. Out of contention with the pressure off after returning an 81 on Saturday (his highest ever round in a major championship) he settled down to enjoy himself in the last round on Sunday to return a 65 to end up level par for the championship. Is too much being asked of the lad?
Ernie Els is a worthy champion. After taking third place in 2000 and second place in 2001 he deserves his name on the old jug. His recent form did not merit the second favourite ranking that the bookies awarded him - but one should never doubt the bookies - and it has to be said that those who most closely challenged him were also unlikely in the main.
My only consolation is that my editor insisted on taking a not unsubstantial bet with me that Tiger Woods would end up above Justin Rose on the final board [wondered how long it'd take you to mention that, Ed]. I was only too glad to comply, having just witnessed his discomfiture on the first tee. Under normal circumstances I would not risk a drink on Justin although he is as assuredly a champion in the making as Thomas Levet is not.
|| 22 - JULY 2002