LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Ernie Els plucked the ball from the hole after one last birdie and heaved it into the grandstand. At the time, it looked like nothing more than a classy gesture by a former British Open champion — not the next one.
The name on the claret jug was supposed to be Adam Scott, who had a four-shot lead with four holes to play.
But in a shocking turnaround Sunday, Els returned to the 18th green less than an hour later to claim the oldest trophy in golf. Scott joined a list of players who threw away a major.
That was not lost on Els, whose heart sank when he looked over at the 32-year-old Australian.
"Sorry," Els told him. "You're a great player, a great friend of mine. I feel very fortunate. You're going to win many of these."
Scott might not get another chance like this.
After hitting a 3-wood into a pot bunker on the final hole, Scott had one last chance when he stood over a 7-foot par putt to force a playoff. It stayed left of the cup, and Scott dropped into a crouch. Standing off to the side, his chin quivered as the magnitude of the meltdown hit him. Instead, he mouthed one word: "Wow."
Even though Els had gone more than two years without winning, and had thrown away two tournaments in recent months with shaky putting, the Big Easy felt all along that something special was going to happen at this British Open.
And it did — all because of a collapse by Scott that no one saw coming.
"I know I let a really great chance slip through my fingers today," Scott said.
On a wind-swept afternoon at Royal Lytham & St. Annes that blew away the hopes of Tiger Woods and a handful of others, Scott looked steady as ever by going eight straight holes without making bogey. And that's when it came undone.
"I had it in my hands with four to go," Scott said.
A bogey from the bunker on the 15th cut the lead to three. That was followed by a three-putt bogey on the 16th, where his 3-foot par putt spun in and out of the cup and made the gallery gasp. From the middle of the 17th fairway, he hit a 6-iron that turned left, ran down the slope and took one last bounce in shin-high grass.
"I thought, 'Hold on. We've got a problem here,' " said Graeme McDowell, playing with Scott in the final group.
By then, Els had posted a 2-under 68 with a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole, a cheer that Scott recognized while playing the 17th. Scott failed to get up-and-down for par from the rough and suddenly was tied.
Els headed to the practice green, where it rarely works out for him. In perhaps the most crushing defeat in a career filled with them, Els was on the putting green at Augusta National in 2004 when Phil Mickelson made an 18-foot birdie putt to win the Masters.
"I just thought, 'I'll probably be disappointed again,' " Els said. "You're not really hoping the guy is going to make a mistake, but you're hoping you don't have to go a playoff, you can win outright. This one was different, because I feel for Adam."
Els, who started the final round six shots behind, wound up with his second British Open — the other one was 10 years ago at Muirfield — and fourth major championship at a stage in his career when it looked as if his best golf was behind him.
"Amazing," Els said. "I'm still numb. It still hasn't set in. It will probably take quite a few days because I haven't been in this position for 10 years, obviously. So it's just crazy, crazy, crazy getting here."
The celebration was muted, unlike his other three majors.
"First of all, I feel for Adam Scott. He's a great friend of mine," Els said. "Obviously, we both wanted to win very badly. But you know, that's the nature of the beast. That's why we're out here. You win. You lose. It was my time for some reason."
The wind finally arrived off the Irish Sea and ushered in pure chaos — a mental blunder by Woods that led to triple bogey on the sixth hole, a lost ball by Brandt Snedeker that took him out of contention and a topped shot that made McDowell, a former U.S. Open champion, look like an amateur.
"I guess my disappointment kind of seems relatively stupid in relation to the guy ... I've just seen a guy lose The Open Championship," said McDowell, who played in the final group of a major for the second straight time.
Nothing was more stunning than what happened to Scott, who closed with a 75.
"I managed to hit a poor shot on each of the closing four holes," Scott said. "Look, I played so beautifully for most of the week. I shouldn't let this bring me down."
Even so, it added another chapter to Australian heartbreak, most of that belonging to his idol, Greg Norman.
Scott was the fourth Australian since the 2007 Masters to lead going into the final round of a major, yet the proud land Down Under remains without a major since Geoff Ogilvy won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006.
"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 ... I'm sure there will be a next time and I can do a better job of it."
Already in the World Golf Hall of Fame, the 42-year-old Els joined even more elite company. He became only the sixth player to win the U.S. Open and British Open twice. The others are Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Lee Trevino.
Woods came undone on the sixth hole when he tried to blast out of a bunker from a plugged lie, stayed in the bunker, and three-putted for triple bogey. Still with an outside chance after a birdie on the 12th, he stuck with his conservative plan of hitting iron off the tee and made three straight bogeys. He closed with a 73 to tie for third with Brandt Snedeker, who also had his share of problems for a 74.
Woods had his best finish in a major since he lost to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship, though he remains winless in the last 17.
"It's part of golf," said Woods, who moves to No. 2 in the world. "We all go through these phases. Some people, it lasts entire careers. Others are a little bit shorter. Even the greatest players to ever play have all gone through little stretches like this."
Els finished at 7-under 273. He failed to qualify for the Masters this year for the first time in nearly two decades, but that won't be a problem now. His win gives him a five-year exemption into the majors.
It was the most shocking collapse at the British Open since Jean Van de Velde took a triple bogey on the final hole at Carnoustie and lost in a playoff. But this was different. It wasn't a last-minute blowup, more of a slow bleed, similar to Jason Dufner losing a five-shot lead to Keegan Bradley in the PGA Championship last year, or Ed Sneed making bogey on the last three holes at the 1979 Masters.
There was just enough wind to make the 206 bunkers at Royal Lytham look a little bit bigger. And as the gusts increased, a calm week turned chaotic.
It started with Woods on the sixth hole, his first triple bogey at a major championship since he lost his ball on the opening hole at Royal St. George's in 2003.
"One yard," he said to his caddie, a measure of the miss. It plugged near the steep wall of a pot bunker.
Instead of chipping to the middle of the bunker, Woods tried to get out with a ferocious swing. The ball smacked into the wall, nearly hit him and wound up near the left wall. He sat on the grass, his left knee (which has gone through four surgeries) flexed underneath him, his right leg extended as he dipped his upper body toward the sand to make a swing. This one also hit the wall, and caromed around and out to the right. From there, he three-putted for a 7.
"The game plan was to fire it into the bank, have it ricochet to the right and then have an angle to come back at it," Woods said. "Unfortunately, it ricocheted to the left and almost hit me."
Just like that, he was seven shots behind. It was the second time this year that one of golf's biggest stars made triple bogey in the final round of a major while in contention. Phil Mickelson made his on the fourth hole at the Masters and never recovered.
Els made a bogey on the ninth to fall six shots behind. All that did was fire him up, and he came home in 32. His 68 is best measured in these terms — of the last 12 players who teed off in the final round, no one else had better than a 72.
Yet there was one more collapse, in the final hour, and it was the one everyone will remember from this British Open. It's one Scott will somehow need to forget. As winner and runner-up met in a portable trailer before going out to the trophy presentation, Els told him: "Don't beat yourself up."