Ernie Els won at Muirfield because he is a champion. Everyone else in the playoff had proven themselves on various tours, but Els has won on many tours, in many countries, on many continents. He's won small events, and he's won the biggest. All four of the men in that playoff are winners. Two men are champions.
Els has two U.S. Opens titles, Steve Elkington won a PGA championship. Each had won a major championship in a playoff. When Sunday's playoff began I wondered if we would welcome a new champion to the game, or if a man who had learned how to win one of the game's biggest prizes would use that knowledge to get halfway to a career slam. The momentum was on the side of the new guys. Stuart Appleby shot 30 on the back nine and got to 6-under by making only the fourth birdie of the day at the difficult finishing hole. Thomas Levet earned his spot in the playoff by making an eagle on the 71st hole. Wasn't that the hole that Trevino finished off Nicklaus 30 years ago?
The champions had sputtered home. Elkington missed putts at 16 and 18 and Els took 4 to get down from the greenside while doubling 16. I still don't understand how he missed the fat part of the green, while holding a one shot lead on the 70th hole. Els regrouped by birdieing 17 and making a par at 18, but the double still had to be weighing heavily on his mind. Tiger was finally out of his way. Would he now give away the championship he wanted most?
By the time the playoff started it seemed the momentum of the fast finishes had worn off. Perhaps the result would have been different for Stuart Appleby if he had been able to go right back out after his blazing finish. The hour or so spent on the range had to cool his hot hand and bring into focus the enormity of his final task.
So the four players started level in the four-hole playoff, and it was time for all of the players to search their experience and themselves, to see if they had what it takes to be a champion. Levet charged to the front. His long birdie putt on 16 had him in charge, but major championships favor the tortoise, not the hare. Els had parred the 72nd hole and then continued his methodical play.
The adage par is a good score was underscored in 1987 at Muirfiled. Nick Faldo won his first of six major championships by making 18 pars on that Sunday. Els understands the significance of pars at major championships. He also understands that in a playoff, when the pressure is increased past its already critical level, pars become a great score.
Had Levet been able to make a couple of pars in the playoff he would have been the first Frenchman ever to have won a major. But this day belonged to that easy swinging tortoise from South Africa. He caught Levet on the 76th hole, then finished him off in sudden death on the very next hole. Els had given up the lead on the 70th hole, but reclaimed a share with a birdie at the 71st. That's when the champion settled down and made six consecutive pars en route to winning the event he's always dreamed about and getting halfway to the career slam.