South Africa's Ernie Els watches his approach to the 7th green during a practice round for The 149th British Open Golf Championship. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP
South Africa's Ernie Els watches his approach to the 7th green during a practice round for The 149th British Open Golf Championship. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP

Opinion: The best week of my life when Ernie Els won The Open at Lytham

By Michael Sherman Time of article published Jul 15, 2021

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JOHANNESBURG - My favourite week in sport is here - after being cancelled last year due to Covid-19 - with The Open golf tournament at Royal St George’s Golf Club starting on Thursday in Sandwich, Kent.

I grew up watching the tournament on TV in South Africa, and could watch all of it because it was in the same timezone. I quickly learnt about the history and tradition of the tournament which is the oldest in golf.

Watching my sixth Open on TV, I witnessed SA star Ernie Els win at Muirfield in 2002. Eight years later, Louis Oosthuizen lapped the field at St Andrews. Those were highlights of watching it on TV. Then came 2012.

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At 26-years-old I was in my third year as a sports reporter, and though my company - the now defunct SA Press Association - (Sapa) refused to pay for me to go over and cover it, I got some freelance work to cover most of my expenses. More about that later.

It was my first Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and I nearly missed the flight over to England as I had a bad bout of gastro. But I made it, dropped my things at my brother who was living in London, and made my way north to Blackpool where I would be residing for the week - 20 minutes away from the course by bus.

I was staying in probably the worst 'hotel' in Blackpool, and that's probably saying a lot. It had a unique odour, breed of cockroaches, and dullness but I tried to make the most of it. That was just where I went to sleep after 16-hour days at the course.

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I was granted inside the ropes access. I watched a bit of Thomas Aiken in a Tuesday practice round as he called well-known SA golf writer Grant Winter over (and me because I was standing nearby) to walk the fairways with him. That in itself was a unique experience.

But there's nothing quite like the first round of a major, and I made sure to follow American Tiger Woods on the Thursday. He hit driver once on the tight layout, shot three-under without making any mistakes. He was definitely going to win his first major in four years, or at least that’s what I told anybody who would listen.

The second and third rounds are a bit of a blur now, but the final round was anything but. I chose to follow Els in the final round, but by the turn I figured his chance had gone, especially with Australian Adam Scott looking flawless with the lead.

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In any case, I had to get back to interview Aiken who looked like he was going to be the top SA player in a share of about seventh. I wrote my story with some great quotes from him (he's always a brilliant interview and makes a reporter’s job very easy).

And with my story done, I settled in to watch the final nine as it looked like Scott was about to romp to victory.

Els had failed to birdie the relatively straightforward short par four 16th and narrowly missed out on a another gain at 17. But I still nipped over to the 18th from the media centre to see Els roll in a birdie at the last, and though he pulled within one it looked like his challenge would come up a bit short. Still, there was a strange feeling in the air when he rolled in that 20-footer at the 72nd, and I must admit I had butterflies in my stomach.

What came next was something that would go down in the annuls of golf history. I watched in both shock and horror as Scott bogeyed the last two holes in a row (completing four dropped shots in a row to end his round), in an incredible final round collapse.

But that of course meant, the 42-year-old Big Easy had won his fourth major and his first in 10 years. A flood of emotions swept over me, I was covering my first major as a golf writer and my childhood golfing hero (whose autograph not too many years prior I had pleaded for as one of the kids in the crowd) had pulled off a miracle Open victory.

Sitting in his winners’ press conference, Els spoke about how people had written him off, that he was ‘washed up’ - he had had serious putting problems and switched to an anchored putter. I was slower than normal writing up my report, as I tried to calm down and put finger to keyboard.

Though I missed my train back to London that night, and forked out some of my last remaining spending money - something dawned on me the next day on my journey south. I had witnessed the best sporting moment of my life that day in Lytham, and nothing else may ever again come close.

Indeed I would go on to cover The Open again in 2018 at Carnoustie, when Italian Francesco Molinari triumphed. That week was also special for different reasons, one being that Woods found his belief again in a major championship (which I believe was critical in him going on to win the 2019 Masters), and getting to know some of the young SA players coming through like Erik van Rooyen and Zander Lombard.

And as The Open tees off on Thursday, I’m reminded it’s been nine years since that magical day in Lytham - and it’s going to take something quite spectacular just to compare.

African News Agency (ANA)

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