In the days leading up to the Open Championship, we heard a lot about how hard the course at Lytham was going to play. Then for three days, the wind disappeared and the players found a stern, but manageable test. On Sunday, we got a taste of what a wind-swept event might have looked like. Even a moderate breeze turned the lush course into a beast and the players, especially those in the later groups saw their scores balloon into the seventies. Even with the lack of red numbers, the majority of the round felt like a coronation for Adam Scott. Tiger Woods made an early triple bogey, Graeme McDowell never looked comfortable and Scott’s lead remained robust as he played conservative golf. The Australian was operating under almost no pressure until Ernie Els starting grouping together some back nine birdies.
There’s never been much question about Adam Scott as a ball-striker. The possessor of “Tiger’s Old Swing,” Scott creates the kind of contact that Lytham has typically rewarded, but after the long putter turned balky–his ball-striking began to suffer as well. It was moments after Els’ birdie roar from 18 that Scott overcooked an approach on 17 and made a bogey that dropped him into a tie with Els. When his tee shot on 18 found one of Lytham’s famous bunkers, the outcome felt decided. Scott’s four closing bogeys put him in unfortunate company when it comes to discussing collapses in a Major Championship. There was nothing spectacular, no one horrific shot that turned the tide, but the trophy was nonetheless handed to Ernie Els.
Perhaps Ernie was owed one like this, after his own disappointments and after he failed to gain entry into this year’s Masters. Ernie has his own, long-documented struggles with the putter so the two deciding putts on 18 Sunday in some ways were a reversal of fortune for the South African. Els was once a great clutch putter, winning two US Opens, matching Tiger Woods putt for putt in a Presidents Cup playoff–Ernie has made plenty of big putts. He just hadn’t been making them lately, and when he did find himself in contention he never made the putt like did on the final hole Sunday.
Ernie will be a popular champion, not quite as sentimental as last year’s winner, Darren Clarke, but Els has always been very popular in Europe. An Open Champion is always revered, and now Ernie joins the far more elite company of multiple gold medal winners. Other than reviving Ernie’s career (he was nowhere on my radar for the week), we can glean a few more takeaways from golf’s most global Major.
1. Tiger again faltered over a Major Championship weekend. On the biggest stages, it still doesn’t look like Tiger trusts his driver. That’s one of the few places where Tiger doesn’t look comfortable. His irons weren’t deadly accurate this week, but if he get’s a different bounce at six, he’s possibly in position to take advantage of Scott’s gift. And, the manner in which this ended, should provide hope to any top player. If you can hang around in a Major these days, you never know what will happen in the end.
2. Phil Mickelson was a total train wreck. It’s hard to pinpoint what’s going on with Phil. Is it attention span? Is he not 100% healthy? There was a time when golfers had shorter primes. Equipment, guys like Vijay Singh have made us assume everyone can compete into their late-40s, but that wasn’t always the case. Phil still looks fearless out there, but I wonder how much willingness he has to go back to the drawing board at this point in his career. He’s been out there for a long time, and you start to wonder about the cumulative grind. He’s far from done, but he appears to be turning it on less and less in recent months.
3. It’s now been five majors since Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open by lapping by field and was given his own “era.” In those five events he’s rarely showed form and a decent start this week dissolved into a poor finish. If Rory had opened with a 67 at last year’s Open he would have been handed the trophy. A year later, and he’s already back to being just another 1st day story.
4. With so many guys winning majors, I think it adds focus to the players who the guys who continually come up short. You can now put Scott on a list with guys like #1 Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker–what are they all waiting for? Back when Tiger won almost 1/2 the majors you could argue that the futility of golfers like Mickelson or Monty, or even Els was understandable, but now each major starts wide-open. It doesn’t make much sense to me how these guys can win multiple times a season and yet look so pedestrian in the biggest events. The Schwartzels, Bradleys and Watsons of the world have obviously figured out something these guys have not.
5. With the Ryder Cup on the horizon in the Fall, I wonder if the Europeans are losing footing as favorites? Coming into the week, they still held the top-3 spots in the rankings, but Americans resided in spots 4-8. They also have 11 of the top 20, compared to just six for the Euros. The Americans always used to hold the edge in the rankings and it was the European’s strong team play and clutch putting that carried them through. When the talent started to even out, the Americans were subject to a couple of blowouts. With an influx of young talent and Tiger returning to form, we could be headed for another close contest at Medinah.