LYTHAM, England – Ernie Els won the British Open and ended a 10-year major victory drought in shocking fashion on Sunday at Royal Lytham as Adam Scott squandered a four-stroke lead with four holes to play.
Els sank a 15-foot birdie putt at the 18th, his third birdie in four days at the finishing hole, while Scott made bogeys on the final four holes in a total collapse, evoking memories of his idol Greg Norman’s epic Masters frustrations.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” Scott said. “I had it in my hands with four to go. That’s what happens on a course like this. I am disappointed. I played so good most of the week. I shouldn’t let this get me down.”
Els captured his fourth major title after the 1994 and 1997 US Opens and the 2002 British Open by navigating brisk winds and avoiding pesky pot bunkers down the stretch, going four-under par on the back nine to capture the Claret Jug.
“It was my time for some reason,” Els said. “A lot of people never thought I would win another one. I started believing this year.”
The 42-year-old South African, who had gone winless in 36 major starts since his 2002 Open playoff triumph at Muirfield, fired a two-under par 68 to finish 72 holes at seven-under 273 and edge Scott, who fired a 75, by one stroke.
Tiger Woods, a 14-time major champion in the hunt with six holes remaining, settled for a share of third on 277 with US countryman Brandt Snedeker.
England’s Luke Donald and Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell shared fifth, another stroke adrift.
Scott appeared to have sealed his first major triumph with a birdie at the 14th hole putting him four in front of Els.
But Scott stumbled with a bogey at the 15th and missed a spirit-crushing two-footer for par at 16 just before Els made his birdie at the last.
“The 16th hole hurt me, missing that short putt,” Scott said.
Scott found greenside rough on his way to a bogey at 17 and put his tee shot at the 18th into a fairway bunker.
He pitched out and put himself eight feet from the cup with his third shot, but missed the putt left of the cup and Els had an unlikely triumph.
“I feel for Adam Scott. He’s a great friend of mind,” Els said. “We both wanted to win very badly. But that’s the nature of the beast.”
Not since Frenchman Jean Van de Velde threw away the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie with a last-hole disaster had there been such blunders with so much at stake at the event.
It rivaled the worst of Norman’s infamous Masters failures, surrendering a six-shot lead on the last day in 1996 for a five-shot loss to Nick Faldo.
Six days after his 32nd birthday, Scott found only heartache instead of victory in his 46th major start.
“I had it in my hands with four to go,” Scott said. “I managed to hit a poor shot on each of the closing four holes.”
It was his third loss in nine events when leading after 54 holes. He became the fourth Aussie in a row to lose a major when ahead entering the last round.
“Very sloppy finish,” Scott said. “I wasn’t even really out of position and I managed to get myself in some trouble and couldn’t make the putts to get out of it the last four holes. I’m very disappointed. It was a great chance.”
Els, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, had a share of second in 1996 and a share of third in 2001 on Lytham’s links before making the greatest last-day victory comeback in a major, six shots, since Irishman Padraig Harrington won the 2007 British Open.
Els had several major near-misses since his 2002 Open title, notably a 2004 Masters runner-up finish and a 2004 British Open playoff loss to Todd Hamilton and thirds in the 2006 British Open and 2007 PGA Championship.
Just four months ago, Els cost himself a spot in the Masters and a victory at the PGA Transitions Championship with a bogey-bogey finish. He lost to Jason Dufner in a playoff last April in New Orleans.
Els, the 16th different winner in the past 16 majors, made bogeys at the second and ninth holes but charged on the back side with birdies at 10, 12 and 14 to keep the pressure upon Scott.
Woods, seeking his first major title since the 2008 US Open, shared second with Els with six holes remaining, each of them four adrift.
But Woods, who endured a triple-bogey nightmare at six, took bogeys at the 13th and 14th holes to stumble back.
Scott, who began the day with a four-stroke lead, had a bogey-birdie-bogey start to the final round, took another bogey at the sixth but followed with seven pars and a birdie at 14 only to bogey the last four holes.
Woods opened with five pars but fell apart at the par-4 sixth, a hole he had birdied in each of the first three rounds, suffering his first triple bogey in a major since the first hole of the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George’s.
Woods battled back to five-under but ran off three bogeys in a row starting at the 14th and not even a birdie at the last could repair the damage.