An epic collapse, a British Open for the ages

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If this had been a normal British Open, Ernie Els would've been hanging out on the putting green hoping his work was done. Any other time, he wouldn't have welcomed a playoff to secure the title.

The Big Easy was willing to make an exception this time.

There was nothing normal about a wind-swept Sunday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

"Crazy, crazy, crazy," Els kept saying.

Crazy, indeed. And, for the guy who let it slip away, a gut-wrenching blow.

Adam Scott had the claret jug in his grasp with four holes to play. A player of enormous potential was poised to fulfill his promise at age 32, to collect the first major championship of his career after building a comfortable lead over three days of brilliant golf.

Then, a bogey. And another. And another. And finally, at the 18th hole, with a 7-foot putt to at least force a playoff, he missed again. Scott's knees buckled. Golf's oldest championship had been snatched away, handed to Els with one of the great collapses in golfing history.

"You're not really hoping the guy is going to make a mistake, but you're hoping you don't have to go to a playoff," said Els, who was playing two groups ahead of Scott. "This one was different because I feel for Adam. I really didn't mind going to a playoff. He probably didn't feel that. But I was, at best, hoping for a playoff on the putting green."

When it was done, Scott had to make a painful walk back to the 18th green to collect the prize that goes to the runner-up. On the table was the silver chalice that should've been his.

He gave it to Els on a silver platter.

The winner hardly sounded like one. In fact, Els was downright apologetic about the way it happened.

"Sorry," he said, looking toward a glassy eyed Scott. "You're a great player, a great friend of mine. I feel very fortunate. You're going to win many of these."

Scott certainly has plenty of years to capture a major. He's just coming into what should be the prime of his career. But no one really knows how he'll bounce back from such a bitter disappointment.

He has joined the infamous list of epic meltdowns, his name now etched alongside the likes of Jean Van de Velde and Ed Sneed and, yes, Greg Norman, his Aussie countryman and childhood hero.

"I played so beautifully all week," Scott said. "I shouldn't let this get me down."

But how could he not?

Scott can only hope he doesn't turn out to be another Van de Velde or Sneed, players who had their one shot at glory and never came close again.

Els tried to be encouraging.

"I told him, 'I've been there many times and you've just got to bounce back quickly. Don't let this thing linger,'" said Els, who added a second Open title to a pair of U.S. Open crowns. "I feel for him. But thankfully he's young enough. He's 32 years old. He's got the next 10 years that he can win more than I've won. I've won four now. I think he can win more than that."

Assuming he can get over this.

Scott, who went into the final round with a four-stroke lead after three straight rounds in the 60s, got off to a wobbly start with two bogeys on the first three holes. But the breeze off the Irish Sea — nonexistent through the first three rounds — blew everyone else away. Everyone but Els, that is, a guy who hadn't won in more than two years, a guy whose best golf seemed behind him.

Tiger Woods made a triple-bogey at the sixth, forced to take one swing while sitting on the grass next to a bunker. In one wayward hole, he lost any chance of rallying to win a 15th major title and end a more than four-year drought since his last big win.

Graeme McDowell duck-hooked his ball into the trees along the 11th fairway, the sort of shot that a weekend duffer might hit, not the 2010 U.S. Open champion. Thirty-six-hole leader Brandt Snedeker also lost a ball, gobbled up by the thick rough.

Els was the only one who mounted a charge, closing with a 2-under 68. But, let's face it, that shouldn't have been enough.

This wasn't so much a matter of one player winning as it was the other player losing.

"I know I've let a really great chance slip through my fingers," Scott conceded. "But somehow I'll look back and take the positives from it. I don't think I've ever played this well in a major championship, so that's a good thing for me moving forward. All the stuff I'm doing is going in the right direction."

Scott appeared to wrap it up with a birdie at the 14th hole, restoring the four-stroke lead he had at the start of the day. Even when a shot into one of the 206 bunkers at Royal Lytham led to a bogey at the 15th, he still seemed in good shape. But when he missed a 3-footer at the 16th, there were some ominous groans from the gallery. And when Els, a couple of holes ahead, rolled in a 15-footer for birdie at the tough finishing hole, Scott couldn't miss the cheers from across the course.

The lead was down to a single shot.

"Yeah, I heard it," Scott said. "I didn't even have to look at the leaderboard to realize the situation."

He responded with a clutch tee shot at the 17th, right in the middle of the fairway, but the next swing is the one he'll carry with him for a while. A 6-iron from 178 yards landed short of the green in waist-high grass. He failed to convert the up-and-down. Just like that, the lead was gone.

"Looking back on it, it all comes down to the shot into 17 for me," Scott said. "That's the one I'm most disappointed with. At that point, I'm still well in control of the tournament."

Then he knocked his tee shot at 18 into another bunker, the ball winding up next to one of the towering sod walls, leaving him with no other choice except to punch it out into the fairway. He showed plenty of guts by getting his iron shot so close, but the long putter that had worked so well all week let him down again.

The ball never had a chance, rolling past the left edge of the cup.

"It's hard to watch a guy do that," said McDowell, who also played in the final group.

Scott finished with a 5-over 75, leaving him one stroke behind Els' winning total of 7-under 273.

In a sense, this was eerily reminiscent of Norman, who won two British Opens, but is best known for all the majors that got away — none more so than the 1996 Masters, when he squandered a six-shot lead by shooting 78 in the final round.

"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. I didn't finish the tournament well today. But next time — and I'm sure there will be a next time — I can do a better job of it."

For now, the pain is too deep to just put it aside and get on with the rest of his career.

Scott doesn't know how long it will take go away.

He only hopes it will.

"Well, it may not have sunk in yet, so I don't know," Scott said ruefully. "Hopefully I can let it go really quick and get on with what I plan to do next week and get ready for my next tournament. We'll see. I don't know, I've never really been in this position, so I'll have to wait and see how I feel when I wake up tomorrow."


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