LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Sunday’s epic collapse aside, the final tally from the 141st Open Championship offered a cautionary tale stripped across the top of the marquee.
Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on the final Lytham leaderboard – Ernie Els, Adam Scott and Tiger Woods, respectively – had all been written off to varying degrees over the past three years – left for dead by an on-demand society that requires results and eschews the long view. Yet there they were on Sunday as the wind and pressure grew.
Els, at 42 a Hall of Famer with a rebuilt left knee and a frightening aversion to 4-footers, won Sunday’s show, while Scott may have lost the claret jug but he may have gained a final measure of recognition for a competitive U-turn few figured he could pull off not long ago. As for Woods, his tie for third probably ranks somewhere just north of a wasted week – remember, second sucks – but it is, by any definition, progress.
But if Sunday’s finish proves anything – beyond the worn-out axiom that anything can happen in major championship golf – it is that golf defies instant analysis and premature judgment. How else could one explain the trifecta of reclamation projects atop the card?
In our collective rush to judgment, some in the golf world had figured all three either finished or rapidly closing on their sell-by dates, and yet there they were vying for Open glory. It is equal parts a testament to each player’s gumption and the evergreen nature of golf.
Putting, specifically the addition of a long putter, has been the tonic for Els and Scott, while Woods’ resurgence is a combination of a healthy body and an increasing level of comfort with his Sean Foley-inspired swing.
It was only fitting that Els would collect his fourth major and second claret jug thanks to the long stick, charging in a 15-footer for birdie at the last that would turn out to be the surprise winner.
Lost in the post-championship glow was how far the Big Easy had fallen in recent years.
He needed a late-season rally (T-30 at the Wyndham Championship) just to make the FedEx Cup playoffs and spiraled to 68th in the world ranking earlier this season to miss the Masters for the first time since 1993.
We weren’t talking about Els winning majors anymore, we were talking about whether he’d even qualify.
But if the golf world had given up on Els, the South African was clearly not ready for his golden years.
“For some reason I've got some belief this week,” Els warned on the eve of the final round at Lytham. “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.”
Until this season, message boards across cyberspace have been filled with debates about whether there was anything good in Woods’ game. The scandal of 2009 begat two injury-riddled seasons and a swing change that, like his three previous changes, was slow coming.
Late last season, Woods swooned to 58th in the world, he needed not one but two captain’s picks to make the 2010 Ryder Cup and last year’s President Cup team and he finished outside the top 25 in earnings on limited starts in both 2010 and ’11 for the first time in his Hall-of-Fame career.
Is he finished? Is he back? The debate raged, but throughout it all Woods, at least publically, never questioned the fact that there is an ebb and flow to even historic careers.
“It's part of golf,” Woods said on Sunday. “We all go through these phases. Some people it lasts entire careers. Others are a little bit shorter. Even the greatest players to ever play have all gone through little stretches like this. When your playing careers last 40 and 50 years, you're going to have stretches like this.”
But if Woods’ slump, be it real or perceived, can be dismissed as media-driven drivel, Scott’s slide was palpably real.
It wasn’t that long ago that everyone in the golf world not named Greg Norman had written off Scott, the one-time prodigy turned project.
In 2009, the Australian slumped to 65th in the world ranking, finished 108th on the PGA Tour money and Norman was questioned for making him a pick for the Presidents Cup.
Since being plucked from mediocrity by Norman in ’09, the ultimate toxic asset has enjoyed a slow yet steady climb back to relevancy. In order, he changed caddies (Steve Williams), putters (long) and his schedule in an attempt be better prepared for the majors, where his pedestrian performance was glaring.
In his first 39 majors, Scott posted just four top-10s and never seriously contended. Since 2011, when he embarked on his grand plan, he’s matched that top-10 total (four) and finished second twice (2011 Masters and last week’s Open).
“He’s working harder than anyone would have imagined on his golf game,” said Geoff Ogilvy late Sunday as he watched his friend at Lytham. “Something lit a fire in him a couple years ago. Maybe it was that bad batch of play in ’08 and ’09.”
Unlike any other sport golf defies declaratives, the realities of longevity won’t allow it. As Sunday’s final leaderboard proved, when it comes to careers it’s almost always too early to call.