Commentary

Ernie Els now owns a pair of Opens

Updated: July 22, 2012, 8:16 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- With a sense of helplessness with which he was all too familiar, Ernie Els stood on the putting green surrounded by the old cobblestone buildings at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, the ones that would bounce the cheers in every direction, his fate in somebody else's hands.

Els had been in this position before, most notably at Augusta National in 2004, his work done, agony or ecstasy to be determined.

This time, incredibly, the good fortune went his way. This time, somebody else was lamenting a major championship loss. This time, still in shock, it was Els who walked onto the 18th green, a major champion again, to accept the Claret Jug.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els
Glyn KirkAFP/Getty ImagesErnie Els added a second Open Championship to his résumé on Sunday. That, along with his two U.S. Open wins, gives him four career major victories.

"It was a different result this time, thank God," said Els' longtime caddie, Ricci Roberts.

Els put up the number on Sunday on this storied links in northwest England, a place where he had come close in the two previous Open Championships he played here, on both occasions needing somebody to falter for him to win.

The 2-under-par 68 included a clutch birdie at the 18th, a 15-footer that made a seemingly mundane back nine all of a sudden interesting. Adam Scott, in control for so long, bogeyed the final four holes to lose by 1 stroke, a stunning development at the game's oldest championship.

That left Els the victor, his first major championship win in 10 years, since prevailing at Muirfield in an aggregate playoff. He also has two U.S. Open titles to give him four major championships, having won them across three decades.

"I'm still numb," Els said. "It's just crazy, crazy, crazy getting here."

No doubt.

Els trailed by 6 strokes at the start of the day and was still 6 back of Scott after a ninth-hole bogey. Birdies at the 10th, 12th and 14th holes barely caused a ripple, as Els fell 4 behind when Scott birdied the 14th a few minutes later.

When Els failed to birdie the short par-4 16th, his chances seemed over, and even the nice 15-footer for birdie at the 18th that caused the grandstands to shake seemed like it would be too little.

And for Els, that was fine.

"For some reason I felt something good was going to come out of this," Els said. "Even if I didn't win, I was going to feel good about it because of all the work we've put in. My game is back where I feel I can compete. If it wasn't this year, I feel I can compete in it next year."

Forget next year.

Els is a major champion again, undoubtedly helped by the misfortune of Scott, who bogeyed the final four holes, missing an 8-footer for par at the last that would have forced an aggregate playoff.

"He played beautiful," said Tiger Woods, to whom Els has finished second more than any other player. "Look at what he did this entire year, how close he was to winning golf tournaments, what he did right before the Masters trying to get in.

"And then it's no surprise that he won the golf tournament, but I think the surprise was how it all unfolded. But he did what he needed to do. He went out there and posted the number he needed to post, and he won the golf tournament."

Having five times finished second in major championships and posting a total of 15 top-5s without wins, it was a bit awkward to accept the trophy at Scott's expense.

"I really feel for my buddy, Scottie," Els said. "I really do. I've been there before. I've blown majors before and golf tournaments before and I just hope he doesn't take it as hard as I did."

Els, who won for the 19th time in his PGA Tour career, has more than 60 worldwide wins and is already in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But for the South African, known as the Big Easy, it's been anything but in recent years.

An excruciating 2004 season in which he had a chance to win all four major championships but captured none -- starting with the Masters, where he heard the roars as Phil Mickelson birdied the 18th hole to beat him -- sent Els on a dark path.

A year later he was injured in a water sports accident, leading to knee surgery. In 2008, he announced that his son, Ben (now 10), was diagnosed with autism, leading Els to start a foundation dedicated to research and helping families who are dealing with the same affliction.

All the while, his golf game suffered, and while he won twice on the PGA Tour in 2010, his game still slipped, mostly due to poor putting, causing him in desperation to go to a belly putter that he despises using because he feels the clubs should be outlawed.

"I played with him quite a lot last year when he was just putting awful," said Graeme McDowell, who finished 5 shots back in a tie for fifth. "He's always been a phenomenal player, but [caddie] Kenny [Comboy] and I were looking at each other saying, 'How bad is this guy putting.'

"You could have blindfolded Ernie, put a hockey stick in his hand, and he couldn't have putted much worse. This is when he started with the belly putter, and it was that bad.

"But he's getting the hang of it now. He's always been such a phenomenal talent around the greens. ... It was only a matter of time before he put it together."

Els had fallen out of the top 50 in the world at the end of 2011, meaning he had not qualified for the Masters. Although starting to play better in the spring, he was unable to get the tournament victory he needed or place well enough to move into the top 50.

The Transitions Championship in March was particularly excruciating, as put himself in position to win, only to miss two short putts on the last three holes, the final one at 18 costing him a spot in a playoff. He later lost to Jason Dufner in a playoff at the Zurich Classic.

But Els has been working with sports psychologist Sherylle Calder, who has helped him with his putting.

"You can see the marked difference from where he was last year to where he was in Tampa [at the Transitions Championship] to where he is now," commented Roberts, who said he has been on Els' bag for 58 wins, including all four majors. "Under the pressure, he's making the putts. Previously he wasn't. Tee to green, his game has always been there. He's still one of the best ball-strikers in the world. Even with all these young guys out here, he's still one of the best players in the world.

"The difference is you make a putt, you can shoot low numbers."

Els admitted that his son's plight has been difficult to separate from his golf life, although lately the hard work of setting up his foundation is now in the past.

"I made a lot of putts today with Ben in mind, because I know Ben's watching," said Els, whose family now lives in Florida but spent the week of the tournament in London. "He loves when I hit golf balls. He's always there. He comes with me. He loves the flight of the ball and the sound.

"I know he was watching today, and he gets really excited. I wanted to keep him excited today, so I made a lot of putts for him today."

That included four birdie putts on the back nine and a couple of huge par saves for an incoming 32 that had the grandstands rocking as they cheered on a former Open champion.

Els acknowledged that the support of the crowd -- he was third and second in his previous two Opens at Lytham -- really lifted him. But as he said at the awards ceremony, he wondered if it was more out of sympathy.

"I have to ask you all a question," Els said to the spectators in the packed grandstands. "Were you just being nice to me? Or did you actually believe?"

There were many who didn't for a time. Els admitted the sting of his failures just a few months ago: "I looked like an absolute fool. People were laughing and making jokes about me."

That was far from the case on Sunday as Els looked up into the crowd, the Claret Jug by his side. This time, everyone was laughing with him.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com