LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – There is a large, square practice green at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, just across a brief swath of pavement from the famous clubhouse and directly adjacent to lodging called the Dormy House, which can accommodate up to 16 guests at a time. Surrounded by rows of flower beds and hedges on all sides, this piece of property is remarkable in its simplicity, nary a hump, bump or slope stealing from its smooth surface.
Wedged into the far corner of that enclosure at precisely 6:21 p.m. local time Sunday stood Ernie Els, anxiously chipping golf balls toward caddie Ricci Roberts. Tied for the lead, he appeared less to be preparing for a playoff and more killing time, fending off nervous energy, armed with the knowledge that his fate rested in someone else’s hands.
Some tournaments offer enduring images of the winner. This one left a lasting audible resonance. As the man nicknamed the Big Easy looked up from what would be the last of those chip shots, a discernible groan permeated the air from the nearby 18th grandstand. One spectator bellowed, “Yes, Ernie!” and chaos ensued, gladhanders, cameramen and tournament officials rushing to greet one of the game’s most popular figures.
This is how, for one singular moment, an otherwise ordinary plot of land developed critical significance in one of the best stories we’ve witnessed in years.
This is where Ernie Els won the Open Championship.
Just 30 yards away, past the rows of flower beds and hedges, behind the famous clubhouse, Adam Scott had certified Els’ name on the claret jug for a second time. The leader by four strokes entering the final round and leader by that same margin at one point on the back nine, he summarily dismissed himself from contention with four consecutive closing bogeys.
The one on 15 seemed just a speedbump on the road to victory, Scott still retaining a three-stroke cushion. The three-putt blunder on 16 was where the nerves became a factor. And the critical misstep on 17 confirmed a deadlock atop the leaderboard while he played the final hole.
It was when the 32-year-old from Australia bogeyed the final hole, missing a 10-foot putt that failed to find the left edge of the cup, that Els was declared the winner, the message emanating lustily from over the hedges.
Physically, Els may have won the championship while chipping balls on that square practice green, but theoretically he triumphed at so many other checkpoints along the journey.
He won because of what occurred at the 18th green just minutes before Scott’s bogey, sinking a 15-foot birdie putt that dropped into the dead center of the hole.
He won because of the entire back nine, posting a Sunday-best 4-under 32 when all other contenders were swerving into trouble. He won when Graeme McDowell hit what he called a “15-handicapper shot” on 11, a topped duck-hook that was never found; when Brandt Snedeker posted back-to-back double bogeys on 7 and 8; when Tiger Woods was forced to sit down to hit a buried bunker shot on 6, leading to triple bogey.
He won because of what he said after his third round, too. So often a picture of pessimism during end-of-day self-analysis, Els punctuated a 2-under 68 on Saturday with recollections of Ben Crenshaw on the eve of captaining the United States team to a come-from-behind victory at the 1999 Ryder Cup.
“For some reason I've got some belief this week,” he explained, six strokes back at the time. “I feel something special can happen. I've put in a lot of work the last couple of years, especially the last couple of months. So something good is bound to happen.”
Els won because of experience. He won because of previous triumph – and even more heartache.
He won because he wasn’t given a special invitation to the Masters in April, his first time missing that tournament since 1993, helping add to an already steely resolve. He won because of that tournament eight years earlier, when in a scenario very similar to Sunday at Royal Lytham, Els stood on a practice green awaiting his fate, only to hear the roars echoing through the pines when Phil Mickelson clinched his first major title.
He won because he didn’t win tournaments in Tampa and New Orleans earlier this season, coming excruciatingly close, but fueling his desire to regain entry to the winner’s circle. He won because he did win three previous majors, enabling him with the confidence and wherewithal necessary to keep his composure in future situations.
All of those – the putt on 18, the back-nine flourish, the Saturday night optimism, the triumphs and the heartache – were vitally important pieces in getting Els to that square practice green near the clubhouse, idly chipping balls while again awaiting his fate in a major championship.
“The R&A asked me what I wanted to do,” he later said. “Did I want to watch or what? I said, ‘No, I'll go to the putting green like I've done so many times.’ And I just thought, I'll probably be disappointed again because so many times [I’m] waiting on a playoff.”
Not this time. As the groans traveled over those hedges and past the flower beds, Ernie Els realized his fate. Where he found out will always live as part of Open Championship lore, but the journey in getting to that location is what made him a major champion once again.