Monday, July 19, 2004

For third major in row, Els can't quite reach victory stand

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

TROON, Scotland - Walking onto the 18th green to accept the silver salver for finishing second in the British Open Championship Sunday, Ernie Els waved to the galleries in the grandstands at Royal Troon. He managed a smile, shook hands with all the right people, then stood politely as winner Todd Hamilton addressed the crowd.

But when he walked off the green following the awards ceremony, Els resisted the urge to toss the silver tray away like a Frisbee.

For the third consecutive major in 2004, the 34-year-old South African entered the final round within reach of the title. And yet for the third straight time, Els left town with the wrong kind of hardware.

Three months after seeing his Masters hopes dashed by Phil Mickelson, who had his own chances to win here, Els made just enough mistakes Sunday to allow Hamilton to steal the claret jug right from his grasp. It started with a double bogey on the 10th hole to drop Els two shots out of the lead, continued with a missed birdie putt on the 18th hole of regulation, and ended when he missed almost the exact same putt an hour later in a playoff.

Other than Mickelson, no other player has been so impressive in majors this year. But if Mickelson can continue to ride the wave of his Augusta win, Els has known only disappointment on major Sundays this year.

Which brings up an observation: If at one point earlier in his career, Els was considered the second-coming of Jack Nicklaus, his near-misses recently are more reminiscent of Greg Norman.

"I think any of them is hard," Els said of his major disappointments. "I was in a similar position in April and I played well that time. And I felt I played well this time. But I didn't quite play the playoff good enough."

Els made two crucial errors in the playoff, first when he missed the green left on the par-3 17th and couldn't save par; then when he failed to convert a birdie on 18 that would have sent play to a fifth extra hole.

Considering the momentum Els had generated before then, the finish was especially tough to stomach. At 7-under par after his double bogey on 10, he went on to make a remarkable par save out of the gorse bush on No. 11, rolled in a 45-footer for birdie on No. 13, then added birdies on 16 and 17 to get to 10-under. And yet when he had the chance to win on the final hole of regulation, Els missed the potentially clinching 12-foot putt on the low side.

"That's the putt I'm going to be thinking about for a while," he said.

Whether Mickelson will take his missed opportunity as hard is another story. It's true, the Masters champion has now had two consecutive chances to add to his breakthrough win at Augusta, but considering his unimpressive record in the British Open prior to this year - he never had a top-10 until this week - third place isn't bad.

After taking a share of the lead at 9-under par with a birdie on No. 7, Mickelson snapped his streak of 49 holes without a bogey when he couldn't get up-and-down for par on No. 13. He would get back to 9-under with a birdie on 16, but couldn't birdie either of the last two holes to get into the playoff.

"To miss by a shot is certainly disappointing," Mickelson said. "I felt after the first day it would've been a lot to get into contention and I played three very good rounds, making one bogey the last three rounds and I was very proud of that. I just didn't make enough birdies to make up the ground."

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