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at ROYAL Lytham
Call it what you like – transformed, born-again as a golfer, rejuvenated, – but there’s no doubt that after his dramatic British Open victory here yesterday, Ernie Els is, after years of self-doubt, suddenly looking like a world No 1 again.
The 42-year-old struck the ball superbly from tee to green all week but, crucially, his putting, so long his nemesis, is no longer holding him back.
This, he readily admits, is much to do with the work he has put in since January with the so-called “Eye Doctor”, Dr Sherylle Calder. The former South African hockey captain and now an eye skills specialist works for the Sports Science Institute and has helped the Springbok and England rugby teams to “see” situations on the course and on the field in a far more positive way to their advantage.
The 42-year-old Els, in astonishing fashion, yesterday came from six shots back of Australia’s Adam Scott at the at start of play – and also with just nine holes to go – to win his fourth Major, 10 years after his third, closing with a two-under-par 68 for a seven-under aggregate of 273.
The Big Easy was brilliant on the back nine, slotting home four birdie putts – including a pressure-packed 15-footer at the last which ran true and straight into the back of the cup, on his way to playing one of the most intimidating closing stretches in golf in four under par.
In fact, they call the closing five holes at Lytham “Murder Mile”. Els played those holes in two under par, with birdies at 14 and 17. Scott, by contrast, played them in four over, with bogeys at each of 15, 16, 17 and 18.
“It’s just crazy, crazy, crazy what’s happened to me. I don’t know. To make up all those shots, it’s hard to explain. But my game is back to where I feel I can compete. For some reason I felt something good was going to come out of this.
“But I do feel for my buddy, Scottie. I’ve been there. I’ve blown Majors before, more times than I’ve won them. He’s such a great golfer and he’s only 32. He hasn’t won a Major yet, but he’s got the talent to win more than my four. I understand his disappointment, but I told him not to allow that disappointment to linger.”
Els won the 1994 and 1997 US Opens, and the 2002 British Open at Muirfield.
And while he’s now won 67 tournaments around the world, his putting has let him down in recent years and he became very negative.
Then, in January, he started working with Calder who gave him off-beat eye exercises to do. “In March people took me for a fool doing these exercises. They were laughing at me, and making jokes about me and really hitting me low, saying I’m done and I should hang it up.
“Then I came close in the US Open, and now I win the Open. To come through all the tough times and make a putt like that at 18, and all those other pressure putts on the back nine, is massive.
“To go through all the different processes with Sherylle, and then being able to sit here with the Claret Jug again at my side is very satisfying.”
Els’s closing 68 for victory completes a remarkable sequence of superb golf in the three Opens he has played here as a professional. In 1996 he tied second when Tom Lehman won, and in 2001 shared third place when David Duval won.
Scott’s 75 gave him second place on 274, Tiger Woods signed for a three-over 73 to tie third with first round leader and fellow American Brandt Snedeker (74) on 277, while Graeme McDowell faded to a 75 for 278.
South Africa’s Thomas Aiken, after a 72, shared seventh place on 279, his best finish in a Major (bettering his eighth place at Turnberry in 2009).
Louis Oosthuizen at one stage yesterday was in the top five but he finished bogey, double-bogey for 73 to tie 19th on 281.