Lytham, England. Just a year ago, Ernie Els figured his days of winning major golf titles were over. He had not won a major since 2002 and his results even in lesser events were sending discouraging signals.
All of that only made his shocking victory on Sunday at the British Open ever sweeter, four birdies on the back nine pushing him to a one-stroke victory over Adam Scott, who cost himself a major with bogeys on the last four holes.
“Last year, no, I thought I had no chance,” Els said. “Last year was really a pretty big hole. But since the start of the year and especially the last month or two, I started seeing some better signs and started believing in that.
“I was in a good frame of mind. So for once it all came together.
“To come through all of that and sit here with the Claret Jug is crazy. It comes from a good attitude, being a bit more relaxed and believing in yourself.”
The 42-year-old South African won his fourth major title on Sunday at Royal Lytham, firing a last-day two-under par 68 to finish on seven-under 273.
Els won his fourth major title after the 1994 and 1997 US Opens and the 2002 British Open, doing so on the same links layout where he had near misses sharing second in 1996 and third in 2001, delighting a crowd of 37,500.
“They were really rooting for me and really inspired me,” Els said. “I think they were behind me just as a past champion, maybe just happy to see me around. I felt a little bit different. I felt I had a chance this week. As I progressed over the back nine they got louder and louder and the crowd grew.
“On that back nine, I don’t think I missed a shot, to be honest. I really hit the shots that I needed to hit.”
Els was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last year, typically an honor for those at the end of their careers. And Els failed to qualify for the Masters by throwing away a US PGA win last March with a bogey-bogey finish.
“Obviously in March I looked like an absolute fool,” Els said. “People were laughing at me and making jokes about me and really hitting me low, saying I’m done and I should hang it up.”
That only enhanced the 15-foot birdie putt Els made at the 18th hole that proved his margin of victory.
“To come through and make a putt like that and make pressure putts on the back nine, that was the whole goal. That was the whole thing,” Els said. “So to sit here with [the Claret Jug] now is quite satisfying.”
Els now has a place booked at the Masters next year by virtue of his Open triumph. And he will defend the crown next year at Murifield, the site of his 2002 British Open victory.
“Can’t wait to get there. Muirfield has always been my favorite,” Els said. “So everything is groovy at the moment again.”
It was a bogey at the par-3 ninth that helped prod Els into going for broke even in tricky winds off the Irish Sea.
“I was really angry with myself. That almost set me in a different mindset. It really got me aggressive,” Els said. “I hit a lot of drivers on the back nine and I was just trying to make birdies.
“I wasn’t ahead. I wasn’t behind. I was right in the moment for once.”
“I just felt that the golf course is such if you just doubt it a little bit, it was going to bite you. So I still felt I had a chance.”
The well-bunkered links layout bit Scott and gave Els a six-shot comeback victory, the biggest in a major in five years, but at the expense of a collapse by a dear friend in Scott.
“I really feel for my buddy, Scottie,” Els said. “I’ve blown majors before and I just hope he doesn’t take it as hard as I did.
“I said to him, ‘I’m sorry how things turned out.’ I told him, ‘I’ve been there many times and you’ve just got to bounce back quickly. Don’t let this thing linger.’
“But thankfully he’s young enough. He’s 32 years old. He has got the next 10 years that he can win more than I’ve won.
“I’ve won four. I think he can win more than that.”