LYTHAM ST ANNES, England (Reuters) - South African Ernie Els won the British Open by one stroke from Adam Scott on Sunday after the Australian suffered an extraordinary late collapse on an incident-packed final day.
World number 13 Scott, chasing his first major championship, started the last round with a four-shot lead and seemed to be cruising to victory as he maintained that cushion with six holes to play.
But a late attack of the jitters caused him to drop strokes at each of the last four holes, allowing Els to slip in through the back door and lift the Claret Jug with a two-under-par 68 and a seven-under total of 273.
“It is amazing. I‘m still numb. It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” Els told reporters after adding to his previous major victories in the 1994 and 1997 U.S. Opens and 2002 British Open.
“I feel for Adam, he’s a good friend of mine. I was just hoping at best to get into a playoff when I was on 17, then I birdied the 18th and heard what happened to Adam,” added Els whose victory extended to 16 the streak of different major winners.
Scott’s sad 75 meant he had to settle for second place on 274, three shots ahead of former world number one Tiger Woods (73), whose hopes were dashed by an ugly triple-bogey at the sixth, and his fellow American Brandt Snedeker (74).
”I am pretty disappointed,“ Scott said. ”I managed to hit a poor shot on each of the closing four holes and they cost me. As I played so beautifully all week I shouldn’t let this get me too down.
“It’s funny, I definitely worked myself up a little bit at times, but once I was out there I felt completely in control and even the last few holes I didn’t really feel like it was a case of nerves or anything like that,” added Scott.
Els, who will rise from 40th to 15th in Monday’s world rankings, played the best golf of all the leading players on Sunday but missed a host of birdie putts until making a forward move by picking up strokes at the 12th, 14th and 18th.
The smooth-swinging South African rolled in a 15-foot putt at the last.
Els, the second successive 42-year-old to win the Open following Darren Clarke 12 months ago, raised his arms in the air, high-fived his caddie and threw his ball into the grandstand before walking off the green sporting a wide grin.
Scott, by contrast, was a picture of abject misery 20 minutes later and appeared close to tears.
A three-foot par-saving effort by the Australian had agonizingly lipped out at the 16th before he hooked his approach into thick rough at the 17th and failed to hole out from 25 feet.
Then, at the final hole, he found a deep bunker off the tee and could only move his ball a few yards forward. Bravely, he struck a sumptuous approach to eight feet but his putt rolled past the hole and victory belonged to Els.
Most of the leaders struggled to cope with tricky winds on a warm summer’s day at the Royal Lytham & St Annes links, none more so than 14-times major champion Woods.
The American chose to play long irons off most of the tees but his title push unraveled in spectacular style when he took a seven at the sixth, his first triple bogey in a major for nine years.
With his ball tight against the wall of a steep greenside bunker, Woods had to take evasive action as it rebounded back towards him following his first attempt to get out.
He then sank to his knees perched on the edge of the trap and, with one leg extended to keep his balance, he made a strong contact with his ball which struck the lip of the bunker and squirted out across the green.
Woods, who had birdied the sixth in each of his opening three rounds, then missed a 40-foot putt for bogey and a five-footer for double-bogey before gratefully sinking his third attempt.
“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,” said Woods.
“Unfortunately it ricocheted to the left and almost hit me. Overall I‘m pleased with the way I played, unfortunately just a couple here and there ended up costing me some momentum.”
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, also had an experience to forget at the 11th.
He was left with a face almost as bright as his pink shirt when he shanked an approach shot with his fairway wood over the head of the spectators 50 yards away, straight into an unplayable lie in the trees.
World number one Luke Donald signed off with a 69 to finish in a share of fifth place with McDowell (75).
Second-ranked Rory McIlroy completed a disappointing week with a 73 for an eight-over total of 288 while world number three Lee Westwood carded a 72 for 286.
Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts shot the round of the day, ripping up the course with a five-under 65 to close on one under.
Editing by Ed Osmond