Els' journey culminates in emotional British Open win

By Jason SobelJuly 22, 2012, 8:26 pm

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.

Full coverage: 141st Open Championship articles, videos and photos

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.

Getty Images

Kerr blows big lead, heads into Kia Sunday one back

By Associated PressMarch 25, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr blew a five-stroke lead Saturday in the Kia Classic to set up a final-round showdown at Aviara Golf Club.

A day after shooting an 8-under 64 to open the big lead, Kerr had a 75 to drop a stroke behind playing partner Lizette Salas, Eun-Hee Ji and In-Kyung Kim. Kerr was tied with Caroline Hedwall, Wei-Ling Hsu and Cindy LaCrosse, and four players were another shot back.

The 40-year-old Kerr had a double bogey on the par-4 15th after snap-hooking a drive into the trees. The 2015 winner at Aviara, she also had two bogeys and two birdies.

Ji had a 67 to match Salas (69) and Kim (69) at 11-under 205. Salas had a chance to pull away, but missed birdie putts of 1 1/2 feet on the short par-4 16th and 2 1/2 feet on the par-5 17th.

Anna Nordqvist had a 66 to top the group at 9 under.

Getty Images

Match Play Final Four set to bring the excitement

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:55 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Sunday’s Final Four at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play will include a pair of Georgia Bulldogs, a two-and-done phenom from Alabama and a Swede from Stockholm via Stillwater, that would be Oklahoma.

Just like that other tournament, right?

Actually, for all the volatility in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it’s not even in the same league as this year’s Match Play, where just a single player who began the week seeded inside the top 10 is still playing.

But what the event may lack in star power it’s certainly made up for with stellar performances, starting with Justin Thomas who is the PGA Tour’s most avid Alabama fan and the tournament’s second-seeded player.

After not losing a match in three days of pool play, Thomas again cruised through his morning Round-of-16 bout with Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5; but found himself in an unfamiliar position early in his quarterfinal match against Kyle Stanley.

Having not trailed during any point in his matches this week, Thomas bogeyed the second hole to fall behind.

“I was hoping to never trail this whole week. I thought that was unbelievable that [2017 champion Dustin Johnson] did it last year,” Thomas said. “I'm going out there this afternoon, and I was like, ‘Man, I have got a chance of doing this, too.’ Then I missed a 3-footer on 2 and shot that out the window.”

The world’s second-ranked player was nearly perfect the rest of the way, regaining the lead with three birdies in four holes starting at No. 5 and closing Stanley out with a bogey-free finish.

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

It’s all part of an impressive turnaround for Thomas, who had been slowed in recent weeks by dental surgery followed by a bout with the flu, which nearly prompted him to miss the Match Play.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” said Thomas, who can unseat Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking if he advances to the championship match. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

His improved health has dovetailed with his increasingly better play at Austin Country Club and he’s now two matches away from winning his first World Golf Championship.

Like the NCAA tournament, however, being one of the last four standing only means more work, and Thomas will have plenty to keep him busy when he sets out early Sunday in a semifinal match against Bubba Watson.

Although Watson hasn’t been as dominant as Thomas, his ability to overpower any course, any time, has been evident this week following victories over Brian Harman, 2 and 1, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 and 3, on his way to the Final Four.

“When you're hitting an 8-iron and another guy is hitting a 7- or another guy is hitting a 6-iron, obviously that's going to change everything,” said Watson, who played his college golf at Georgia. “It's like LeBron James, when he jumps, he jumps higher than I do, so it's an advantage. When you're hitting the driver good and those guys you're naming, they're known for hitting the driver pretty well, just like Thomas is doing right now, he's been hammering it. Anytime that you're hitting the driver somewhat straight, it's an advantage.”

But if Bubba is a familiar foe for Thomas, he may want to do a quick Google search to fill in the blanks on one of his potential final opponents.

While Alex Noren is still a relatively unknown player to many American fans (and that’s certain to change in September at the Ryder Cup), it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. The Swede, who attended Oklahoma State, has been dominant this week, sweeping the group stage followed by a 5-and-3 victory over Patrick Reed in the Sweet 16 and a 4-and-2 triumph over Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals.

“I've always liked match play because the outcome is quite direct,” said Noren, who will face Kevin Kisner in the semifinals. “In match play, you've just got to be really focused all the time and anything can happen. And then you have to play good each round. You can't just give up a round and then think you've got three more.”

But if a JT vs. Noren final would be the perfect Ryder Cup primer, the dream match up for Thomas in the championship tilt might be Kisner.

Kisner lost a friendly wager to Thomas earlier this year at the Sony Open when Alabama defeated Georgia in the NCAA National Championship football game and he had to wear an Alabama jersey while he played the 17th hole on Thursday.

Kisner would certainly appreciate the chance at a mulligan. And the way the duo have been rolling in birdie putts this week, it has the potential to be just as entertaining as that other tournament.

Getty Images

Up one, Stricker hunting second Champions title

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 11:48 pm

BILOXI, Miss. - Steve Stricker moved into position for his second straight PGA Tour Champions victory, shooting a 3-under 69 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead in the Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Stricker won the Cologuard Classic three weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona, for his first victory on the 50-and-over tour. He tied for 12th the following week in the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

Stricker had a 7-under 137 total at Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed layout with big, speedy greens.

The 51-year-old Wisconsin player bogeyed Nos. 2-3, rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6-7, birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th. He has six top-three finishes in eight career senior starts.

First-round leader Joe Durant followed his opening 66 with a 72 to drop into a tie for second with Jeff Sluman (67).

Getty Images

Thomas can take world No. 1 with win over Watson

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:29 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – On March 7, Justin Thomas had his wisdom teeth removed, and just when he was recovering from that, he was slowed by a bout with the flu.

In total, he estimates he lost about seven pounds, and he admitted on Saturday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play the event.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” Thomas said. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off, if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Thomas went on to explain he was “50/50” whether he’d play the World Golf Championship, but decided to make the start and it’s turned out well for the world’s second-ranked player.

After going undefeated in pool play, Thomas cruised past Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, in the round of 16 and secured himself a spot in the semifinals with a 2-and-1 victory over Kyle Stanley in the quarterfinals. If Thomas wins his semifinal match against Bubba Watson on Sunday, he’s assured enough points to overtake Dustin Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking.

“I don't care when it happens; I just hope it happens and it happens for a while,” Thomas said when asked about the possibility of becoming world No. 1. “I don't know what to say because I've never experienced it. I don't know what's going to come with it. But I just hope it happens tomorrow.”