June 25, 2007

Jekyll & Hyde

An up-and-down Ernie Els ends Tiger's Grand-slam bid

The Grand Slam still flutters somewhere over Scotland like a wounded sea gull, book publishers are still weeping, scads of writers are still trying to convince Ernie Els to let them help him turn out the bestseller, Watch Out for Your Lap, a British Open Might Fall in It, and I'm still waiting for Tiger Woods to come to the press tent.

Before I get to how Big Ernie won his third major championship to elbow ahead of all the other lurkers and claim the world's No. 2 title, let me tell you what I will remember about the 131st British Open: In the rain, chill, mist, wind and gray gloom of Muirfield on an Agatha Christie Saturday, Eldrick (Tiger) Woods had a head-on collision with a shocking I-surrender-get-me-outta-here-and-turn-the-thermostat-up 81. It had to be one of the most hilarious days in the history of sport: Nature beats up on touring pros.

Even more amazing was Tiger's body language that told you he was struggling from the moment he teed off in the lashing wind and freezing rain. While others were just as cold, hunched over and frustrated out there — how about Colin Montgomerie's 84 a day after his 64? — many of them fought back. Duffy Waldorf, for one, went out in 45 but made five birdies to come back in 32. Els shot 40 on the front side with Shigeki Maruyama but regrouped to finish with a 72 that felt like a 67. "We kept dropping shots, and they wouldn't take us off the leader board," joked Els, who a day earlier went 29-37 to earn a share of the lead. But Tiger seemed resigned to his fate. His look seemed to say, "Why are the elements doing this to me? I'm Tiger Woods."

So after starting Saturday only two strokes out of the lead, and after what had been a massive buildup to the Grand Slam effort — a feat many experts had already conceded to him — Tiger wound up 11 shots and 66 players behind with only 18 to play. He'd stuck a fork in his Nike swoosh; he was done. Didn't matter that he would close with a superfluous 65 on Ideal Weather Sunday. That 81 the day before was hardly the kind of effort Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had made when they'd chased their own Slams to come within eyelashes of winning on the Auld Sod.

As meltdowns go, Tiger's Muirfield misery has to rank up there among the most famous. Up there with Sam Snead's 8 on the last hole of the '39 U.S. Open, Palmer's collapse on the back nine at Olympic in '66 where he frittered away seven strokes (and that U.S. Open) to Billy Casper, Greg Norman's 78 in the last round of the '96 Masters that bequeathed another green jacket to Nick Faldo, and Nicklaus' 83 in the first round at Sandwich in '81, an embarrassing number no doubt inspired by the news that his son Steve had rolled a car on the Jack Nicklaus Expressway back in Columbus.

Among all those events it's most fondly remembered that after Jack shot a 66 in the second round, he received a wire from Steve saying, "You can come home — all is forgiven."

What I insist on taking home from Muirfield is Tiger's refusal to come to the press tent to meet the enormous contingent after he'd blown the Slam. Although he did a gallant TV interview, he passed on the tougher questioning of the mass press conference. Another difference between him and Nicklaus and Palmer. You'd have had to fight Jack and Arnold to keep them away if they'd suffered the same type of disappointment.

Jack would have talked about each poor shot, tried to explain what was on his mind from hole to hole, and even made a stab or two to find some dark humor in the situation.

Similarly, one remembers a USGA official in San Francisco offering to usher Arnold out the back door at Olympic and away from the press after his horrifying self-destruction.

"Nope," Arnold said. "I deserve everything they want to give me."

It's what real champions do, of course. They don't just show up when everything's bluebirds and lemonade.

Another point I'd like to make about the now-dead Grand Slam is that — except for those PGA folks in Minnesota — we all agree it would have been bad for golf. Now is too early in Tiger's career for him to win it. As Jack himself said, we want him to win the Slam, but in another 10 years — giving Tiger and us something more to look forward to.

Meanwhile, back at the championship, it seemed like the whole world went on a birdie bash in the final round, and finally you had the first four-way playoff in Open history: Els, the little Frenchman, Thomas Levet, and those two familiar Australians, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby.

Els made the playoff and won it with two memorable and remarkable shots, making him the heir to fellow South African Gary Player as the best bunker player on the planet. The first came for a par save at the 13th, helping Ernie to stay alive to tie at six-under-par 278, and the second one led to a four-foot par putt to win it for him on the fifth playoff hole over Levet, this year's Jean Van de Velde -- and since when did the French start getting to be this kind of habit?

Tiger finished tied for 28th, and it was left to that noted British Open aficionado Scott Hoch to tie for eighth to claim low American — the worst U.S. showing since no one bothered to cross the pond for the championship in 1959.

Ernie's triumph is certainly good for the game, because Tiger's contenders have been catching heat for their failure to provide much competition. It was Els' first claret jug to go along with two U.S. Opens and four seconds in majors over the past seven years.

In fact, Ernie once looked as if he might be the next ruler of the sport, the guy Woods is now despite the blown Slam. When Ernie won the first of his two U.S. Opens, at Oakmont in '94, it was Curtis Strange who said, "I think I just played with the next god of golf."

It hasn't been easy. "I've had a good career, but I've got a little Jekyll and Hyde to me," Ernie says.

The monster in him came out after a double-bogey 5 at the 16th forced him to birdie the 17th to regain a share of the lead in regulation.

"Walking off 16, a lot of things went through my mind," he said. "I was like, 'Is this a way to lose another major; is this the way you want to be remembered — screwing up in an Open Championship?' A lot of things went through my mind. I'm pretty hard on myself, and that wasn't one of my finer moments."

That's where Els' recent training with his over-the-top sport psychologist, Jos Vanstiphout of Belgium, came in. Els and ol' Jos had an hour-long session the morning before the final round, met again 45 minutes before Ernie teed off in the afternoon, and met again before the playoff, when Ernie thought he might have blown the tournament.

"The first thing he said to me before the playoff was, 'You're not going to give me any [grief], are you?' " Vanstiphout recalled. "I said, 'No, man, you're doing fine.' " But Jos has been working on Ernie's self-esteem and something he calls "a pretty bad case of Tiger Woods-itis."

"The problem with 80 percent — maybe 90 percent — of the guys on tour is Woods, Woods, Woods," Vanstiphout says.

The thought of losing to a Woods-less pack of contenders was another gut-check for Els.

"Some careers could have ended like this," he said. "I wouldn't say mine would have been one of them if I didn't win today, but I would have really been a different person. Now, in a better and good way, I'm a different person again. Now I'm back on track. I can now legitimately try to win the majors — four majors."