Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 22, 2012

Agony And Ecstasy At Royal Lytham

For 68 holes Adam Scott was the class of the field at the Open Championship. Many of his fellow competitors fell victim to the 206 bunkers that litter the links of Royal Lytham and St. Annes. They lost shots by being forced to play out sideways from fairway sand, unable to advance the ball toward the green over the bunkers’ steep faces. They accepted bogey as the best possible score when from greenside traps their only route of escape was to hit away from the flagstick. Others such as Tiger Woods adopted a conservative game plan, repeatedly hitting irons off the tee to stay short of the course’s diabolical hazards. But that left all who chose that strategy with lengthy approach shots on hole after hole. The always limited margin for error with a long iron or hybrid club dwindled all the more on Sunday, when after three days of relative calm the wind finally blew.

Through it all Scott bombed driver after driver down the middle of Lytham’s fairways, leaving himself in prime position to attack the pins. The handsome and soft-spoken Australian who celebrated his 32nd birthday on Monday of Open week seemed poised to complete his already impressive golfing resume. Scott has fifteen professional wins, including eight on the PGA Tour. Those eight victories include a win at the 2004 Players Championship, a victory at the 2006 Tour Championship, and a dominating four-stroke triumph at last year’s Bridgestone Invitational, one of the four World Golf Championship events featuring the top players from around the globe. When he matched Royal Lytham’s course record with an opening round 64 to seize the lead, the possibility of adding a win at a major championship to that list seemed entirely plausible.

On Friday Scott was passed by Brandt Snedeker, who added his own 64 to an opening 66 to take a one shot lead into the weekend. But Scott was right there in second, three shots clear of Tiger Woods, and Snedeker had miraculously played the first two rounds without a single bogey. Surely at some point the course was going to get even with the American. Cue the third round, in which Snedeker at one point recorded five bogeys in a seven hole stretch. Scott meanwhile fired his third straight round in the 60’s, a 2-under par 68 that left him at 11-under for the tournament and four strokes clear of the field with 18 to play.

Sunday offered the toughest conditions of the tournament as the gusting breeze dried out the links and carried errant shots even further from their intended target. Scott made the turn at 2-over for the day, but he still held a three shot lead as no one who started on the first page of the leaderboard was able to break par. Tiger Woods saw his chances end in a greenside bunker on the par-4 6th hole. He needed two swings to move his ball from sand to putting surface, and then three putts to find the cup, the eventual triple-bogey leaving him seven shots behind at that point in the round. Playing alongside Woods, Snedeker made back-to-back double-bogeys on the 7th and 8th holes to fall out of contention. Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, tied with Snedeker for 2nd place at the start of the day and playing alongside Scott, backed up with three straight bogeys around the turn.

So the masses of fans at Royal Lytham scrambled to find the best viewing positions along the inward nine as the final groups made the turn for home. As others around him stumbled Scott ran off a string of seven successive pars from the 7th through the 13th. Ahead only 42-year old Ernie Els was making a move, sinking birdie putts on the 10th, 12th, and 14th greens. But Els had begun his round at 5-under, six shots behind the leader; and like Scott he had gone out in plus-2, so the string of birdies still left him three adrift. The decisive moment appeared to come when Scott hit his approach close on the par-4 14th hole. Two holes ahead Els put his drive on the short par-4 16th just right of the green. Within moments of each other Scott rolled in his birdie putt to get back to minus-10, while after chipping to within ten feet Els missed his putt for a matching birdie. Els had just two holes left and Scott only four, and the Australian’s lead was once again four shots.

The very first Open Championship in 1860 was contested over 36 holes. Eight professionals went three times around Prestwick’s 12-hole layout in a single day. The 36-hole format remained in place until 1892, when the Open was doubled to 72 holes, four rounds on what had by that time become the standard golf course of 18 holes. Unfortunately for Adam Scott, golf’s oldest major has never been decided over 68 holes. Over the final four, in agonizing fashion, he let the 2012 Open slip away.

On the 15th hole he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker, and his lead was back to three. On the 16th he had a wedge in his hand in the middle of the fairway, but his distance control failed him and he flew his approach well past the flag. His first putt rolled four feet wide of the hole, and his second spun around the cup but stayed out. The three-putt bogey cut the lead to two. After another perfect drive on the 17th, he was walking to his ball when from up ahead there came an enormous roar. On the 18th hole, Els had put his approach hole-high and twenty feet wide of the pin. The Big Easy’s birdie effort was never in doubt, falling into the center of the cup and moving Els to 7-under, just one behind the faltering Scott.

Back on the 17th Scott pulled a 6-iron out of the bag and then pulled his shot long and left, the ball ending in deep rough behind the green. It took a good effort just to chop it out of the fescue and onto the putting surface. But his 20-foot par effort was left all the way, and Scott’s lead was gone. Then on the 18th, after four days of beautiful drives, Scott’s tee shot finally failed him. A 3-wood strayed just enough off-line to find a deep fairway bunker, from which he could only blast out sideways. Fighting to the end, he struck a fine approach that stopped a dozen feet short of the hole. But the desperate putt to save par and force a playoff broke left at the last moment, and as his legs buckled beneath him Adam Scott’s agony was complete.

In sports as in life there are events that spawn divergent emotions; feelings uniformly intense but utterly contradictory, left to collide and clash in the hearts of fans. Sunday at Royal Lytham brought forth in equal measure the bitter torment of humiliating defeat and the sweet joy of redemptive victory. One cannot help but feel for Adam Scott, who in the clichéd but accurate assessment of an ESPN announcer had “one hand on the Claret Jug” as he walked off the 14th green. Caddies and coaches aside, golf is ultimately an individual sport, and a crushing loss by one’s own hand has been known to scar a professional’s psyche long after the moment has passed. Here’s hoping that the popular Scott gets another chance at a major soon, and this time rises to the occasion.

At the same time, every golf fan should cheer the return to form of Ernie Els. The Big Easy has sixty-five wins worldwide during his career, but only three in the last four years and none at all since the South African Open in December 2010. Plagued by putting woes, he slipped out of the top fifty in the world rankings and thus did not qualify for the Masters in April. In the past few years, even as his career seemed to be slipping into twilight, Els has devoted increasing energy to raising money for the fight against autism after his son was diagnosed with the condition. In the wake of missing the Masters he refocused on his golf game, with gradually improving results. At the Open his putting was still suspect, though the one that mattered most on Sunday afternoon was absolutely pure. But his game tee to green was a wonder, as he led the field in greens in regulation. His 2-under par 68 in Sunday’s vexing conditions was the only sub-par round by any player who started the day within shouting distance of the lead.

Now, a year after missing the cut in three of the four majors and just three months after failing to qualify for this year’s first one, Els is a four-time major champion. Adding to his first Open title a decade ago and his 1994 and 1997 U.S. Open wins, he has now won a major in three different decades. Silencing the doubters and proving that at 42 he still has plenty of game, he once again possesses the game’s most precious trophy. With the Claret Jug firmly in hand Ernie Els is the 2012 Champion Golfer of the Year.


  1. Great post. What an unbelievable collapse. I thought the tournament was done but I guess you just never know. You see why Adam Scott hasn’t panned out like he was supposed to. And I also think this is just another piece of evidence to show that the Tiger intimidation factor is more media hype than anything. Guys in golf are collapsing anyways and clearly this time it had nothing to do with Tiger. A snooze fest of a major turned into an absolute historical one yesterday. This is why I love golf. Also, you think you could check out my blog cuz I’d love to know what you think

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