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Els awakens from long slumber, even if at the expense of friend Scott

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Els: 'I told him [Scott] that I've been there many times, and you've just got to bounce back quickly.' (AP)  
Els: 'I told him [Scott] that I've been there many times, and you've just got to bounce back quickly.' (AP)  

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- After all the scars and all the pain the majors have heaped on him over the last decade, Ernie Els is the last person you'd expect to find his inner Norman Vincent Peale.

"I feel something special can happen," Els said Saturday night as he sat five shots off the British Open lead on a course he's finished second and third on before. "Hopefully it's tomorrow."

Something special came in the form of a six-shot rally on the final nine holes. When all the other contenders including long-time nemesis Tiger Woods were collapsing all around him, Els played the best golf of anybody within reach of the claret jug. He shot a 68 when none of the other players who started the day at 2-under or better shot better than 72.

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That it came at the heart-breaking expense of friend and five-time Presidents Cup teammate Adam Scott was the only blemish to Els' otherwise blissful reawakening.

"I feel numb," Els said of what he called a "crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy day."

"It still hasn't set in. It will probably take quite a few days because I haven't been in this position for 10 years. ... But I really feel for my buddy Scotty, I really do. I've been there before. I've blown majors before and golf tournaments before, and I just hope he doesn't take it as hard as I did."

Few have taken things harder than Els. Few have had as many chances to get hurt.

Els was one of the game's giants in the 1990s when a newcomer named Tiger Woods came and stole his thunder. He was the guy who too often had to come in as the runner-up and explain the greatness of a guy who was stealing all his chances.

Then after a third major victory in a four-man playoff at Muirfield in 2002, the scar tissue starting get thick and was applied by all manner of player.

Phil Mickelson left him in shock on the putting green in Augusta in 2004 as the roars told him he'd lost the green jacket. Two months later Todd Hamilton left him crushed at Royal Troon when his putting stroke betrayed him on the 72nd hole and subsequent playoff. He frittered away chances at places like Pebble Beach and Whistling Straits.

His caddie, Ricci Roberts, said a few years ago that Els had never really recovered from those repeated traumas.

Then came the personal pain of his son, Ben, being diagnosed with autism. And then more professional pain of seeing his putting touch diminish with age and his status fall from the ranks of the top 50 in the world.

More major titles seemed a million miles away from his reality a year ago.

"Last year, I thought I had no chance," Els said. "Last year was really pretty big hole."

Earlier this year as he tried to snap out of his funk, he chafed under the whispers that he'd lost his confidence and was done as chance after chance to qualify for the Masters slipped through his fingers.

"Obviously in March I looked like an absolute fool," said Els, who finished bogey-bogey to lose a lead in Tampa and missed a short putt to win a playoff in New Orleans. "People were laughing at me and making jokes about me and really hitting me low, saying I'm done and I should hang it up."

But Els kept working, retraining his eyes and restoring authority to his stroke. He'd putted the greens at Lytham all week better than most as he burned the lips to leave him at arm's length.

Then when he made bogey on the ninth Sunday and made the turn six shots behind Scott, it was Els who suddenly found the confidence of his 24-year-old self.

"I was really angry with myself at 9 and that almost set me in a different mindset," Els said. "It really got me aggressive. I hit a lot of drivers on the back nine and I was just trying to make birdies. I felt good. I wasn't ahead, I wasn't behind. I was right in the moment, for once. I was really just playing the shot in the moment."

Birdies at 10, 12 and 14 put him in position to post a number and make Scott sweat. But it was 18 where Els knocked 10 years off his life. Perfect drive. Perfect approach. Perfect putt from 18 feet into the heart of the cup.

"When you've been where I was, you have no confidence in putting, you don't want to have that one coming back," Els said. "So to come through and make a putt like that and make pressure putts on the back nine, that was the whole goal. To sit here with it now is quite satisfying."

That putt elicited a roar so loud that Scott knew exactly what was happening as he was leaking strokes and facing only a one-shot cushion in the middle of the fairway. The Australian couldn't hold on, with bogeys on the last four holes.

As much as Els wanted to win, he was actually wishing for a playoff to settle it head-to-head with his friend.

"I'm so happy that I've won, but I've been on the other end more times than I've actually been on the winning end, so to speak," he said. "And it's not a good feeling. ... I think Adam is a little bit different than I am. I did see him afterwards in the scorer's hut and he seemed OK.

"I really said to him, 'I'm sorry how things turned out.' I told him that I've been there many times, and you've just got to bounce back quickly. Don't let this thing linger. So yeah, I feel for him. But thankfully he's young enough. He's 32 years old. He's got the next 10 years that he can win more than I've won.

"I've won four now; I think he can win more than that."

So Els will go home with a major trophy for the first time since the year his son was born. He thought about his family at home watching him play the kind of golf he used to play routinely.

"I made a lot of putts today with Ben in mind today, because I know Ben's watching," he said. "He loves when I hit golf balls. He's always there. He comes with me. He loves the flight of the ball and the sound. I know he was watching today. He gets really excited. I wanted to keep him excited today, so I made a lot of putts for him today."

But mostly, Els made the putts for himself and his legacy. His been to the top and the bottom and back to the top again.

"To play the game as long as I have, for 23 years now as a professional, you're bound to go through every emotion out there and most of the things happen to you," he said. "As I said before, I've done what Adam has done before. Just about everything that can happen in the game of golf, I've gone through. So to come through all that and sit here and speak to you guys with the Claret Jug is crazy. And it comes from a good attitude, yeah, being a bit more relaxed and believing in yourself.

"It's amazing this game, you know. You have a positive feel, you give yourself positive vibes, sometimes positive things happen. And I think I've been in such a negative mode for a while, and now that I'm starting to feel more positive, obviously things happen, especially on the back nine where I haven't really done the job."

In vintage fashion, Els found the confidence to do the job that no one else could do at Lytham.

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