Six back after the first nine holes in the final round of the 2012 British Open, Ernie Els proved once again that it’s never over until the last putt drops.
“I'm still numb. It still hasn't set in. It will probably take quite a few days because I haven't been in this position for 10 years, obviously, so it's just crazy, crazy, crazy getting here,” Els admitted after the victory.
He had been written off by himself—his own admission—and many in golf. But the support of a friend in South Africa, businessman Johann Rupert, and Els’ wife Liezl never waned. Last winter Rupert introduced him to a sports psychologist, former South African hockey captain, Dr Sherylle Calder. She told him he would win another major. He must have thought she was crazy.
“Last year, I thought I had no chance. Last year was really pretty big hole,” he confessed. “But since the start of the year and especially the last month or two, I started seeing some better signs and started believing.”
Els had already gone to the long putter out of desperation. Although his tee-to-green and short games always remained world class, it was his putter that had let him down. In March, he bogeyed the last two holes at Transitions earlier in the year to lose that tournament. He was not extended an invitation to The Masters, the organizers saying they felt Els would earn his way back.
Graeme McDowell told ESPN.com that Els’ putting was so bad last year, “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.”
“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. So 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.”
Whatever transpired between then and now, is in the rear view mirror. Els turned around his horrific putting patch, regained his confidence and captured his fourth major. He was never in the lead at the tournament until the last putt holed out by Adam Scott put him there.
Half way through his final round, he had not made up any ground.
“I bogeyed nine. I was really angry with myself at nine, and that almost set me in a different mindset. It really got me aggressive,” he admitted. “I hit a lot of drivers on the back nine, and I was just trying to make birdies. I felt good. I didn't feel like—I wasn't ahead, I wasn't behind, I was right in the moment, for once. I was really just playing the shot in the moment.”
He posted a 32 for the final nine holes, which given the conditions and the situation, was an amazing score. His experiences in golf—both good and bad—told him to just keep going.
“When you've been around as long as I have, you've seen a lot of things happen,” he said. “I just felt that the golf course is such if you just doubt it a little bit, it was going to bite you. There's too many bunkers, too much trouble, and there was a bit of a breeze. So I felt I was going to hit the shots and I felt—I still felt I had a chance.”
On Sunday, with his newfound belief, he soldiered on during the last nine holes.
“I didn't play myself out of it yesterday,” he said about the third round, forgetting for a moment about the six stroke deficit. “But still, you know—to make up all those shots—I just felt good. I don't know. It's hard to explain. For some reason I felt something good was going to come out of this. 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 to where I feel I can compete.”
Because of his own near misses in majors, when Els said he felt badly for Adam Scott, it was not empty lip service.
“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 added. “Obviously I'm so happy that I've won. But I've been on the other end more times than I've actually been on the winning end, so to speak. And it's not a good feeling.”
Els has lost majors when others have out-birdied him on the way to the finish. He has fallen a shot or two behind. He has had terrible final rounds and lost. He, like Adam Scott, has led the final round of major championship only to come up short, the 1995 at the PGA at Riviera, which was won by Steve Elkington in a playoff with Colin Montgomerie. Els did not even make the playoff that year after having the third-round lead.
Els told Scott that he had to bounce back and not let this tournament linger.
“Thankfully he's young enough. He's 32 years old,” Els added. “He's got the next 10 years that he can win more than I've won. I've won four now; I think he can win more than that.”
Els is officially Champion Golfer of The Year, the title the Royal & Ancient Golf Club gives to winners of the British Open, and now has a ticket to The Masters for the next five years.
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.