Still in control of his nerves

The final round of the 141st British Open was a victory for Ernie Els, a validation of experience and a reminder that major championship golf requires a sophisticated balance of physical and mental skills.

Among the many things that occurred during the last chaotic hours on Sunday, besides golfers from around the world being humbled by a deceptively punitive golf course, was a sudden surge by a host of veteran players.

It was as if a familiarity with the kind of odd golfing disasters that happen on the last day of a major championship made it easier to persevere. It was not just Els vaulting to the top as Adam Scott bogeyed the last four holes.

Tiger Woods, for all his troubles in a sixth hole bunker on the final day, managed to tie for third place. Combined in a large group at ninth place were these names from the past: Vijay Singh, 49, and Mark Calcavecchia, 52. Joining them were 48-year-old Miguel Angel Jiminez and veterans in their 30s like Geoff Ogilvy, Ian Poulter and Matt Kuchar.

 There is not a young gun in that group. To be sure, there were young players near the top of the leader board, too – Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen and Belgium’s Nicholas Colsaerts – but there were also eight former major winners in the top 10.

Els’ triumph ended a streak of nine consecutive first-time winners in golf’s major championships. His victory over the faltering Scott also meant that the 54-hole leader of a major tournament had once again not held on to win, something that has happened eight times in the last 11 majors. Often the vanquished have been young, less experienced players.

 That has not always been the case as just last month veterans Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell were tied for the third-round lead at the US Open and neither won. But from Scott on Sunday to Dustin Johnson at the 2010 US Open to Jason Dufner and Brendan Steele at last year’s PGA Championship, inexperience heading into the crucible of the final nine holes of a major still seems a liability. 

The two trends – a series of first-time winners coupled with a sequence of succumbing 54-hole leaders – might seem to conflict.

Interestingly, the players who are in the middle of all the winning and losing see it as they always have: Veteran seasoning matters as much as it ever did.

 “It’s a very tough assignment out there with the lead in a major and you have to have your wits at all times,” Els said. “It’s so very easy to lose your train of thought or to be distracted for 20 seconds and that’s all it takes for a scorecard-killing mistake that dooms you. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s emotional. I’ve seen both sides, doing well and doing poorly, and the more times you’re there the more you understand it.”

Scott, magnanimous and analytical in defeat, said he felt prepared and not terribly nervous late Sunday, and yet knew he stumbled anyway. “Some things go wrong that had not been going wrong,” he said. “That’s why it’s so hard to win one, isn’t it? It’s not an atmosphere you can duplicate. Hopefully, I’ll be back in it a few times and do better.”

 Rory McIlroy, who has frittered away a third-round lead in a major (2011 Masters) and successfully protected a third-round lead in another (2011 US Open), said acknowledging some measure of failure, or expecting it, might be the key. “The test of nerves on a difficult golf course will expose your weaknesses,” McIlroy said. “It will happen. It’s about overcoming that I think.”

 The trial on the last day of a major championship is also nuanced and multi-dimensional. Geoff Ogilvy won the 2006 US Open when Phil Mickelson made successive mental blunders on the 72nd hole.

 Before Scott had played the back nine on Sunday, Ogilvy, who has known Scott since they were teenagers in their native Australia, said he thought Scott was mentally strong enough to keep the lead, but he had a caveat. “It’s difficult because he’s never had to sit on a big lead on a Sunday of a major before,” Oglivy said. “Mentally, it’s harder to have a four-shot lead than a one-shot lead. Because you feel like it’s in your hands more and that puts more pressure on you. It’s an odd feeling.”

Scott, 32, repeatedly maintained that he felt “surprisingly calm” during the final four holes. Maybe he did, but after 3 1/2 days of mostly steady, mistake-free golf, he bogeyed four holes in roughly an hour.

Meanwhile, the 42-year-old Els was serenely chasing up the leader board. His final
stroke of the day, a 17-foot birdie putt, was caught on television with a ground level high definition camera. The ball rolled true and straight. Its axis – highlighted by a line Els draws on his ball – never wavered off the path directly to the middle of the hole.

A short while later, the same camera angle sized up Scott’s eight-foot putt to force a playoff. The ball shot left of the hole almost at impact with Scott’s putter and never had a chance of going in.

Leave it to the 52-year-old Calcavecchia to sum up what may have happened. About an hour before Scott’s collapse, he was asked what makes it so hard to win a major title. “It’s just pressure,” Calcavecchia said. “Quite honestly, that’s it.”

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