LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Still in shock over winning the British Open, Ernie Els walked onto the 18th green to collect the claret jug. He looked at the thousands of people in the grandstands who only an hour earlier had celebrated this 42-year-old champion making one last birdie.
“I have to ask you all a question,” Els said to them. “Were you just being nice to me? Or did you actually believe?”
Perhaps the Big Easy should have asked that of himself.
He had every reason to beat himself up this year, and every reason to believe his best days were behind him.
Winless in more than two years, he had a one-shot lead at Innisbrook when he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, and missed another 4-footer just as badly on the 18th green that would have put him into a playoff at the Transitions Championship.
Two months later, he was in a playoff with Jason Dufner in New Orleans when Els had a 6-foot putt for the win on the first extra hole. It never had a chance.
In between those tournaments was the harshest reminder of how far he had fallen.
For the first time in 18 years, he was not eligible to play in the Masters Tournament because he had fallen out of the top 50.
Somewhere along the way, Els stopped listening to that little voice in his head about everything that could go wrong. Even after a poor wedge to the 16th hole in the final round of the U.S. Open led to a bogey that ended his chances, he saw brighter days ahead.
And in a final round that looked to belong to Adam Scott, Els never stopped believing he could win.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ve seen a lot of things happen,” Els said. “And I just felt that the golf course is such if you just doubt it a little bit, it was going to bite you. There’s too many bunkers, too much trouble, and there was a bit of breeze. So I felt I was going to hit the shots. And I felt I had a chance.”
He needed some help from Scott – a lot of it.
Unlike his three previous majors, this celebration was muted. Even for Els, it was painful to see the 32-year-old Australian endure a collapse that will rank among the most memorable in golf. Four shots ahead with four holes to go.
Els became only the sixth player to win the U.S. Open and British Open twice. He became the first player since Lee Trevino in 1984 to win a major after being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
He joins Mickelson with four majors, second to Woods among active players.
This British Open featured three days of perfect weather and just enough wind Sunday to make it interesting. There were small ponds in pot bunkers. There was Woods, legs splayed outside a pot bunker on his way to a triple bogey. There was Scott, a reminder of how cruel golf can be.
But the lasting image 10 years from now will be Els, a giant in the game in so many ways, caressing that precious claret jug after winning a major only he thought possible.