LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Still in shock over winning the British Open, Ernie Els walked onto the 18th green to collect the claret jug. He looked at thousands of people in the grandstands who only an hour earlier had celebrated this 42-year-old champion making one last birdie.
"I have to ask you all a question," Els said to them. "Were you just being nice to me? Or did you actually believe?"
Perhaps the Big Easy should have asked that of himself.
He had every reason to beat himself up this year, and every reason to believe his best days were behind him.
Winless in more than two years, he had a one-shot lead at Innisbrook when he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, and missed another 4-footer just as badly on the 18th green that would have put him into a playoff at the Transitions Championship. Two months later, he was in a playoff with Jason Dufner in New Orleans when Els had a 6-foot putt for the win on the first extra hole. It never had a chance.
In between those tournaments was the harshest reminder of how far he had fallen.
For the first time in 18 years, he was not eligible to play in the Masters because he had fallen out of the top 50.
Somewhere along the way, Els stopped listening to that little voice in his head about everything that could go wrong. Even after a poor wedge to the 16th hole in the final round of the U.S. Open led to a bogey that ended his chances, he saw brighter days ahead.
And in a final round that looked to belong to Adam Scott, Els never stopped believing he could win.
"When you've been around as long as I have, you've seen a lot of things happen," Els said. "And 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 breeze. So I felt I was going to hit the shots. And I felt I had a chance."
He needed some help from Scott — a lot of it.
Unlike his three previous majors, this celebration was muted. Even for Els, it was painful to see the 32-year-old Australian endure a collapse that will rank among the most memorable in golf. Four shots ahead with four holes to go.
How will this major be looked upon 10 years from now?
Part of that depends on what Scott does going forward. He became only the second player since 1999 to blow a four-shot lead going into the final round of a major. The other was Rory McIlroy, who shot 80 on the final day at Augusta National last year. McIlroy bounced back to win the next major by eight shots.
McIlroy was 22 and already had contended in majors. Scott is 32, and it took him a decade just to give himself a reasonable chance in one.
Scott has famously told the story of being up in the middle of the night to watch Greg Norman on the verge of finally winning the Masters, taking a six-shot lead into the final round in 1996 only to implode with a 78. It was the most stunning collapse for the Shark in a career filled with bad luck. Scott cried watching it unfold, so the comparisons to what he did Sunday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and what happened to his golfing idol were natural.
"Greg was my hero when I was a kid, and I thought he was a great role model, how he handled himself in victory and defeat," Scott said. "He set a good example for us. It's tough. I can't justify anything that I've done out there."
Els also has had his share of grief, the very nature of the game. He finished runner-up in three straight majors in 2000, twice by big margins to Tiger Woods. He had come close before at Royal Lytham in 1996, finishing two shots behind Tom Lehman. He threw away the PGA Championship at Riviera in 1995, which would have given him two majors before Woods arrived to dominate golf.
But nothing compares with 2004.
Els had a chance to win all four majors that year — he played in the last group in two of them — and came away empty.
In a thrilling display of birdies between Els and Phil Mickelson at the Masters, the Big Easy finished his round of 67 and headed to the putting green to see if there would be a playoff. Mickelson was playing the 18th, needing a birdie to win. The gallery at the Masters is so enormous that he couldn't see Mickelson or what was about to unfold. All he could do was listen as he tried to rap putts.
The roar was shattering in so many ways. Els simply walked to the locker room.
This time, behind the Victorian clubhouse at Lytham, he munched on a sandwich and talked on his phone. And when Scott made the last of his four straight bogeys, missing from 7 feet on the 18th, Els was a major champion and in some pretty exclusive company.
He became only the sixth player to win the U.S. Open and British Open twice. He became the first player since Lee Trevino in 1984 to win a major after being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
He joins Mickelson with four majors, second to Woods among active players. Els always thought he belonged in the class with Seve Ballesteros, who won five, or Nick Faldo, who had six majors.
This British Open featured three days of perfect weather and just enough wind Sunday to make it interesting. There were small ponds in pot bunkers. There was Woods, legs splayed outside a pot bunker on his way to a triple bogey. There was Scott, a reminder of how cruel golf can be.
But the lasting image 10 years from now will be Els, a giant in the game in so many ways, caressing that precious claret jug after winning a major only he thought possible.