For Ernie Els, it was a phenomenal journey

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland -- Great blunders on great stages often haunt the minds and debilitate the play of famous golfers the rest of their careers. Occasionally, someone escapes, by his grit and the game's grace. Those lucky and brave survivors are rare indeed.

All players know this. Few admit it. Almost none discuss it. Ernie Els, who squandered the British Open in regulation play Sunday at Muirfield, then won it back on the fifth playoff hole, would talk of little else after the best moment of his golf life.

This day, which ended when Els saved par with a spraddle-legged sand shot on the 18th hole to beat Thomas Levet, was also a round that came perilously close to being the worst experience of his golf life.

Els knew this most of all: He had gone from clear winner to clear loser in a few hideous minutes. Then, in a golf epiphany even he still does not understand, "Suddenly, I pulled it back. Somehow I pulled myself together." Nearly two hours later, he was the last man standing after a four-hole four-way playoff that evolved into a final one-hole sudden-death playoff with Levet.

For five years, Els has gone without a major title since winning his second U.S. Open at Congressional in '97. Once presumed to be the next Sam Snead, Els became an ultra-talented enigma who described himself as "a Jekyll & Hyde golfer." Fans, who loved his gracious smile and gentleman's manner, called him "The Big Easy." But, to Els -- so sublimely gifted, so often star-crossed--golf greatness seemed like the big easy come, easy go.

Not coincidentally, Tiger Woods, with his superhuman aura of confidence, emerged just as Els seemed to go into what many feared might be a permanent shell. Six times Els finished second to Woods, twice in majors. In playoffs, Els always seemed to lose.

"You can only take so much," Els said as he held the Claret Jug that he has dreamed of winning since he was 9 years old. "If I didn't get it this year, I don't think I ever would have won it. ...

"Some careers could have ended like this. Look at some of the guys that lost the Masters and this tournament. Some people just never recover. I wouldn't say I would have been one of them

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