Big easy does it the hard way

Ernie Els, golf ‘‘Big Easy’’, won his first Open title the hard way at Muirfield tonight.

Ernie Els, golf ‘‘Big Easy’’, won his first Open title the hard way at Muirfield tonight.

Cruising along nicely until he bogeyed the 14th and double-bogeyed the 16th, the 32-year-old South African had to survive the championship’s first four-man play-off and then its first sudden-death shoot-out as well.

Eventually, after putting himself through torture, Els grabbed the famous claret jug and stopped Thomas Levet from becoming the first French winner since Arnaud Massy in 1907 and picked up a cheque for £700,000 in the process.

Australians Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby had also tied on the six-under-par total of 278, but they bowed out over the four holes of extra stroke play when they bogeyed the last.

It left Els and Levet going head-to-head and at the first extra hole - the 449-yard 18th again - the world number three got up and down brilliantly from the edge of a greenside bunker.

Levet, trying to succeed where Jean Van de Velde had failed so memorably just three years ago at Carnoustie, had driven into sand and short in two and 40 feet away in three, he grazed the hole, but opened the door.

Els’ recovery had pulled up three feet from the hole and he admitted he was shaking as he stood over it.

But the double US Open champion had been in this position before - it was in sudden death that he won his first major title against Loren Roberts eight years ago - and he breathed a high sigh of relief when the putt dropped.

‘‘It was definitely slipping away from me,’’ he admitted. ‘‘I’ve been after this for 10 years and I think if I didn’t make it at this one, I never would have.’’

Levet had earlier eagled the 17th from 40 feet to match Elkington’s 66, while Appleby went one better with that with five birdies in the last nine holes.

Els, though, still had the long 17th to come and he two-putted it for birdie before parring the last for a 70 to give himself four more holes - - the first, 16th, 17th and 18th - to make amends.

Elkington beat Colin Montgomerie in a sudden death play-off for the 1995 US PGA, but it was totally new territory for Levet and Appleby, for whom the Open brings back tragic memories.

It was after the 1998 championship that he and wife Renay headed off for a second honeymoon and she was killed at Waterloo Station in London when a taxi reversed and crushed her.

The early clubhouse target had been set three hours earlier by the most extraordinary round of Gary Evans’ life.

The 33-year-old from Worthing had never won in 274 previous European Tour events.

But six birdies in the first eight holes and then two more at the start of the inward half - including one of approaching 70 feet at the 10th - put him into the lead.

Two ahead standing on the 17th fairway - but with the last groups 13 holes back - he pulled a four-wood not just into the crowd, but over their heads.

It was never seen again, despite around 200 people looking for it for the permitted five minutes. Four other balls and a frog were uncovered, but not his precious Titleist 2.

‘‘I couldn’t believe no-one had heard it or seen it,’’ he said later.

As if fate was taking a hand, he then holed a 50-foot putt with his second ball for the most dramatic of pars.

However, a bad two-iron off the final tee and then a nine-iron from the rough which was hoicked into the grandstand illustrated the pressure he was feeling and it was to Evans’ immense credit that he eventually made an eight-footer for bogey, a 65 and five-under aggregate.

As he talked excitingly afterwards he was still sharing the lead - with Els, Japan’s Shigeki Maruyama, American Scott Hoch and Elkington - but then Els birdied the ninth and 10th to go two clear.

Harrington halved that with birdies at the 15th and 17th, but Els responded with a nine-foot putt at the 12th to reach eight under.

Harrington, unlike Evans, elected to hit driver down the 449-yard 18th, but as soon as it left the clubface he knew it was heading for one of the bunkers down the left.

Unbeknown to him, Els found a pot bunker on the short 13th - the same trap he had failed to get out of on Friday.

The force was with him, however. He splashed out brilliantly to within a foot of the hole to save his par and stay two in front.

Harrington’s mistake was fatal. He had to go out sidewards, bogeyed and with playing partner Appleby making a 20-footer for his third birdie in the last four holes - and a sparkling inward 30 - Harrington and Evans were done for.

Levet joined the fun with a 40-foot eagle putt on the 17th and when he parred the last the Frenchman, trying to do what Van de Velde came so close to doing three years ago, joined Appleby on six under.

Elkington, like Levet, had not dropped a shot all day and his two-putt birdie on the 17th - the second was a nerve-tester from six feet - brought him to six under as well.

Els, meanwhile, found another bunker off the tee at the 14th and this time he could not recover. The bogey left him just one in front and ensured no easy run-in.

Elkington had a great chance to make Els’ task harder after hitting a superb drive and iron to six feet on the last. But he missed and now he, Levet and Appleby all sat and waited.

For Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia, the two youngest contenders, it was not to be.

Rose, trying to be the youngest winner for 109 years and only three behind at the start of the day, was never in it after double-bogeying the sixth.

Garcia, also two under teeing off, birdied two of the first five, but could not find another gear when he wanted it most.

At the other end of the age scale 49-year-old Des Smyth, trying to become the oldest-ever winner of a major and also two under overnight, had a disappointing day too. But how he enjoyed the week - and possibly his last Open.

All eyes were on Els now - and he would rather they were not at the short 16th.

Another iron left, a clumsy chip that ran off the front, one back that ran 12 feet past and then a missed putt brought a double-bogey five.

Suddenly Levet, Appleby and Elkington were joint leaders and Els required a birdie-par finish just to make it a four-way play-off.

He gave himself a route back to victory by finding the green in two, but had to settle for two putts and so went to the last tee in the classic situation of birdie to win, par to tie.

His approach pulled up 30 feet short of the flag, but his putt for victory was short too and the drama went on.

Joint fifth one behind were Evans, Harrington and Maruyama.

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