GULLANE, Scotland – Last year’s Open Championship is impossible to forget. The memories, both good and not so pleasant, remain profoundly vivid.
We were in the midst of an Adam Scott coronation. Royal Lytham & St. Annes was braced to see the Aussie breakthrough and win his first major championship.
Then it all came crashing down in an hour, which, in the context of a 72-hole major championship feels like the blink of an eye. Scott finished with four consecutive bogeys to lose outright to Ernie Els, who finished earlier with a clutch, 20-foot birdie putt on the home hole, not knowing at the time it was good enough for the victory.
Many people use the word surreal to describe moments that, well, just are not surreal. It’s an overused term. In this case the adjective fits perfectly.
There was an eerie quiet cast over Lytham, a place that had been electric for most of the day. No one knew what to say to each other. No one knew what to say to Scott. No one knew what to say to Els. Did Scott lose or did Els win? There was a different vibe than I’d ever felt at a major championship; a bizarre, unexplainable vibe.
Made more unreal was how well Scott handled the historic meltdown. He was calm, thoughtful and introspective. It felt like anyone who spoke with Scott felt worse for him than he did himself.
It was impressive to witness. The man had poured his heart and soul into an indescribable loss and sat there and handled it with dignity, grace and pure class.
Most were so impressed with how Scott handled the devastating moment that the conversation turned and some began to wonder if he had enough fire in his belly to be a great major champion. If Scott was over losing so quickly after the collapse, how could he have enough fortitude to perform again on the biggest stages?
“Overall you just have to be tough coming down the stretch, and I wasn't tough enough that day,” Scott said Wednesday at Muirfield on the eve of the 142nd Open Championship. “A four-shot lead isn't enough if you're not going to be tough.”
After that dreadful week Scott took comfort from the words of others, both those in his inner-circle and those outside it.
Scott played a practice round with Tom Watson late last year at the Australian Open and Watson waited seven holes before mentioning the Open hiccup. Watson told Scott that he let major championships slip early in his career and that he vowed to never let such a situation happen again.
“Obviously, words coming from him I took to heart,” Scott confided.
Said Els: “Like I said last year to Scotty, we’ve all done it. He’s not the first one to have done it. We’ve all done it – messed up major championships – and you learn from it and sometimes it comes back.”
Els, not surprisingly, was gracious in victory last year telling his longtime friend not to let the sting of the defeat linger. Els told Scott to fight hard to get back into contention quickly in a major.
“I think it's all the good advice and guidance that I've been given on how to handle playing a professional sport or handle just being a person and having a decent perspective on all that,” Scott said. “And somehow that turned into me taking Lytham as a positive, and just pushing me harder to try to get across the line to win a major.
As we know, Scott sprinted through that proverbial line in April when he claimed the first-ever Masters victory for an Australian. The studly finish with three birdies over the last six holes (including one at the 18th) to get into a playoff with Angel Cabrera, then the final nail in the form of a birdie on No. 10 on the second sudden-death playoff hole, shredded any previous questions about Scott’s toughness.
“I felt like I played tough, especially in the playoff,” he said. “No one is going to give you a major.”
So, the last 52 weeks come full circle here at Muirfield. On the eve of the Open Championship it’s still tough for Scott to put into perspective how he feels about emotions that come while experiencing the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. He just knows that he’s glad it’s all in the past and that this week is another opportunity to put himself into contention at a championship that his idol Greg Norman has won twice.
“This really has been the tournament I've been looking forward to most this year, there's no doubt, for obvious reasons,” Scott said. “After what happened at Lytham, I was eager to get back and try and get into another position to hopefully win the claret jug.
“It's been a great year. Obviously putting Lytham behind me and going on to win the Masters this year, has been a bit of a fairy tale, and if I were to get in contention this week, that would just continue. I'm excited about the week. There's so much to look forward to the way everything has shaped up for this Open Championship.”
Last year’s Open was memorable. Only one result would make this year’s contest more unforgettable.