Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — At first light Sunday morning, the tree tops were barely swaying — bringing about the initial impression that it likely would not be a windy day (as it had been forecast) for the final round of the British Open.
A British Open without wind is like a football game without the band and cheerleaders, a cocktail party without napkins. You not only come to expect windy conditions, you look forward to it, knowing that it can significantly influence the outcome.
Any lead is vulnerable when the wind elevates as it did by the start of the final round. Arriving at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, you could see the flags waving vigorously — but not intensely — just typical British Open weather. Early on, you could tell by the scores that the course was playing tougher and would be unforgiving. When the day was done, the golf course had prevailed. There was more to the challenge than the wind, which was little more than a stirring breeze, but it brought those 206 bunkers into play. Strong breezes and Open pressure can be an agonizing combination.
As the competitors began to struggle, you recalled what Jack Nicklaus said about Lytham & St. Annes: “The last five holes are probably as tough a five holes of tournament golf as you have anywhere in Britain.”
Perhaps, Adam Scott, the third-round leader at 11-under, will take comfort in Jack’s appraisal.
At hole No. 2, you could hear Graeme McDowell talking to his caddie about his 20-foot putt.
“We have to allow for the wind,” he said as he sized things up.
With the active wind movement overhead, it did not seem likely that it would affect putts, but the scores would confirm the conditions were a big challenge.
The leaders began backing up early on. By the start of the final nine holes, nobody had made an advance against par.
Scott had lost a stroke to par and playing partner Grahame McDowell lost two strokes. Tiger Woods, with a triple bogey on the 6th hole, lost three strokes and Brandt Snedeker, with back-to-back double bogeys went from 7-under at the start of his round to 3-under.
With nine holes to play and the wind picking up, it was a matter of who could remain friendly with par. It appeared that only Scott was going to manage well enough to claim victory. After making birdie at the 14th hole to go to 10-under, he carded four straight bogeys. He had come back to the field. After No. 14, he appeared to have a lock on the tournament, but to his everlasting regret, he could not even get into a playoff.
Nobody made a move until Ernie Els birdied the 10th hole to start a four-birdie run that gave him a 68 total and the lead in the clubhouse at 7-under.
Lytham had given everybody else the back of its hand, and the last to take it on the chin was Scott, the young Australian.
He was trying to win his first major but had suddenly lost his grasp on the Claret Jug. As Scott played the 18th, leading with a driver into a fairway bunker, Ernie Els was on the putting green, which was reminiscent of the 2004 Masters when he was doing the same thing when Phil Mickelson birdied No. 18 to win without a playoff.
This time there would be no playoff either, but there was a different ending.
Scott missed a 10-foot putt to give Els the championship on a day of infamy for the Australian, who had played so well throughout the week.
These guys are good, but sometimes they lose golf tournaments in the strangest ways.
Maybe the inevitable comparisons to Greg Norman are unfair, but Scott’s collapse is a reminder of Norman’s inability to close majors.
Norman’s heartbreak list is lengthy. He lost five majors in playoffs, and then there was his 1996 meltdown at the Masters when Nick Faldo came from eight strokes behind to break Norman’s heart again.
In case you are interested, SAP on Els’ cap stands for Systems Applications and Products, a German global firm.
Els, according to one source, gets paid $3 million a year to wear the cap. After Sunday at Lytham, he probably can easily get a raise.