The engraver at the British Open works quickly, etching the names of the winner and second-place finisher into the claret jug and silver plate by the time the awards ceremony takes place on the 18th green.
Occasionally, though, what transpired on the course leaves some work to do off it. When Adam Scott was handed the silver plate on a gray, dramatic, early Sunday evening in northwest England, it read, “Adam Scott, runner-up, 2 strokes.” Eventually, the 2 will become 274, signifying the number of shots he needed over four rounds at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Until then, Scott might look at his prize with strain and scorn, knowing it was just two strokes — two careless, sloppy, stressful strokes — that stood between him and his first major championship.
For the second consecutive major, the winner never held the outright lead while he was on the course. In Webb Simpson’s case at last month’s US Open, his final-round 68 proved victorious only when those playing in the final group — Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell — couldn’t get it done down the stretch.
The final-round 68 by Ernie Els at Lytham — a superb score, since it came later when the wind was up, on a day when the stroke average was nearly 73 — simply gave him the opportunity to be introduced by R&A chief executive Peter Dawson as the champion golfer of the year. It was left to Scott to determine who that would be.
In control of the 141st British Open for most of the first 68 holes, Scott unraveled over the closing four, bogeys on each wiping out his seemingly safe four-stroke lead. Throw in Els’s clutch birdie putt on No. 18, and the five-shot swing over the last hour of play created a collection of conflicted feelings for many observers: glad ones for Els, sad ones for Scott.
No matter the stage, anyone who plays the game knows all too well: Golf giveth, and golf taketh away.
It took plenty from Scott, a 32-year-old Australian who’s easy on the eyes (according to my wife), easy to deal with, easy to root for. But you knew Sunday was going to be anything but easy; winning major championships, especially the British Open, when the weather can be such a factor, is supposed to be difficult, testing the world’s best.
For 3½ days, it seemed to be Scott’s time to pass the quiz. Because of how he lost, he’s now faced with a bigger one. How he’ll recover from such a stunning collapse will be closely watched and dissected, starting with next month’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. With eight PGA Tour victories — the first came at the 2003 Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston — he has proved he can win. But as Scott found out, winning majors is a totally different beast.
Coughing up a late lead landed Scott on a list of the greatest giveaways in major championship history, alongside Sam Snead (1947 US Open), Arnold Palmer (1966 US Open), Greg Norman (1996 Masters), Jean Van de Velde (1999 British Open), Phil Mickelson (2006 US Open), and Rory McIlroy (2011 Masters).
Some, such as Palmer and Norman, never won majors after their collapse. Van de Velde, whose inexplicable triple bogey wiped out a three-shot lead on the 72d hole, never came close to a major any other time, before or since. But Mickelson has 11 tour wins (including a major) after his meltdown at the ’06 US Open. McIlroy responded to his final-day 80 at Augusta by winning the next major by eight shots.
Scott can learn from McIlroy, and Norman. Perhaps he already has. The way Scott handled himself in Sunday’s aftermath, just as Norman and McIlroy did when they lost, likely endeared himself to millions, and rightly so. From his demeanor walking across the 18th green to accept a disappointing trophy — Scott raised his hands in applause to the crowd in acknowledgment of the vocal support they provided, and he wasn’t wearing a hat or hiding behind his trademark sunglasses — to his comments in the ensuing news conference, Scott said and did all the right things. Gutted, no doubt, on the inside, he wasn’t going to make matters worse by being a poor loser on the outside. No point in that. It’s also not what golf is about.
Els knows the feeling. Victimized at a number of major championships — he has six second-place major finishes, in addition to his four wins — the Big Easy has received a crash course over the years in dealing with major heartache. He has lost with class, and as Sunday reminded us, he has won with class. Good on him, as they say.
Does he get sympathy from people because his son has autism and Els has taken the cause public? Probably. What’s the shame in that? Being aware of the challenges anyone — in this case, Els — might face in their personal life only increases the appreciation and respect that comes with professional success, especially when reached at the highest level.
I said this after Sunday’s final round ended, and many seemed to agree: I felt bad for Scott, but would have felt worse if someone other than Els won. Sunday seemed to trigger an equal-share sentimental dose: half heartbreaking, half heartwarming.
How much credit will Els get for winning at Lytham? Hard to say. Almost everybody remembers McIlroy’s Masters collapse. But how many know who won the tournament? Charl Schwartzel, for one. It seems that whenever golf’s major collar gets tight, the tournament holds its place in history because of who didn’t win, instead of who did: Palmer in 1966 (won by Billy Casper), Norman in 1996 (Nick Faldo), Mickelson in 2006 (Geoff Ogilvy).
They don’t take trophies away from those who benefited from someone else’s implosion, though. Els’s name has already been added to the claret jug, and Scott’s to the silver plate. Neither player expected it. That’s golf.