Ernie Els uttered some now-prophetic words at Castle Stuart 12 days ago. "I think I'm on my way back," he said prior to the Scottish Open. "I can feel something. I'm definitely getting closer."
On top of this, at the last two Opens held at Lytham, Els had finished runner-up in 1996 and 3rd in 2001. This was clearly a course he liked.
The new Open champion has, arguably, been the most popular figure in professional golf over the past 20 years. Els is easy to be around, gracious in front of the galleries, slow to ill-temper and with a ready smile. With a lot of sportsmen these qualities are saccharine, they are a front. With Els – ask anyone in professional golf – they are authentic.
Yet his struggles prior to Sunday night's momentous win at Royal Lytham & St Annes had been well-documented, by a slightly pained regiment of golf correspondents. It had caused open distress to see Els' game ebb away over recent years, to the extent that, blasphemy of blasphemies, by early 2012 he had fallen out of the top-50 in the world rankings.
By late February of this year there was even a minor fuss over the fact that, given Els's disintegration, he wouldn't meet the entry criteria to tee-up in the Masters in April. Els had played at Augusta National for 18 successive years, twice finishing runner-up and securing six top-10 finishes. The fans loved him there. Couldn't the rules be relaxed, some argued, in order to let him in? Well, the Augusta blazers held firm. No rules were bent to make way for the big South African. And it seemed to sum things up. Els, there was no other way of putting it, looked washed-up at 42.
In victory at Lytham on Sunday he spoke vividly of those cruel times just four months ago. "People were laughing at me and making jokes about me and really hitting me low. It was hard, you know . . ."
It is now 22 years since a well-known golf magazine published a picture of a youthful Els on its front cover with the headline: "Ernie Els – The Future of Golf". I can still recall collecting that magazine as I boarded a train at Glasgow Central, on my way to some long-forgotten European Tour event in England, where Els was due to make one of his first appearances in Britain.
Back then few in Europe had heard of this new sensation coming out of South Africa but, sure enough, in the 1992 Open at Muirfield the 21-year-old Els tied for 5th and offered a hint of things to come. He was said to possess the most captivating, fluid swing in golf since Sam Snead.
But, with Tiger Woods soon to arrive to a blare of trumpets, the Els phenomenon failed to materialise. US Open wins in 1994 and 1997 were decent, and his triumphant win in the Muirfield Open in 2002 confirmed that Els was among the best. But most had expected him to possess eight or nine majors by the time he was 40 – not a mere three.
Other things impinged on his life. Els' son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism at the age of five, and Els and his wife, Liezl, decided to spend more time at their family home in South Africa in order to provide the best possible care for Ben. For Els, it meant more travel, more hassle in and out of tournaments but, of course, it was for the best. And all the while his game went into decline.
People lamented his descent into mediocrity, and yet his record in majors was still testament to his prodigious talent. Prior to Sunday, Els had won three big ones but had also finished either second or third in 11 others. In total, he had posted a remarkable 32 top-10 finishes in majors since 1994.
Small wonder on Sunday evening, and with more than a little wryness, Els said: "I've been on the other end more times than I've actually been on the winning end. I've blown a lot of majors and it's not a good feeling."
Inevitably Els' win on Sunday will remain submerged beneath the debris of Adam Scott's collapse, and with good reason. No man, standing on the 15th tee with a four-shot lead in the Open, should go on to lose.
Yet Els' victory still represents one of the greatest career-comebacks in the modern game. It is also telling that, while Scott attracted much sympathy at Lytham, other seasoned observers could not stop themselves doing a jig of joy on behalf of Els.
Golf fans have pined for this player to come good again. On Sunday evening they were finally – and joyously – put out of their misery.
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