Beaten In Playoff, Smiling Frenchman Gains Respect
by Robert Millward
GULLANE, Scotland (AP) ? Smiling and getting the crowds to cheer even louder, Thomas Levet did all he could to stun Ernie Els and cause an upset victory in a playoff at the British Open.
If only his clubs had listened to him, too.
It wasn't quite like countryman Jean Van de Velde's comical three-stroke giveaway at Carnoustie three years ago. But the Frenchman just didn't get it right on the final hole and lost to Els in a dramatic finish to a typically unpredictable Open.
Instead of going for accuracy from the tee with a 2-iron, the Frenchman, who has just two European tour victories on his 14-year record as a pro, tempted fate by taking his driver at the difficult par 4 18 in the four-way playoff against Els and Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby. After the two Australians had been eliminated he did the same in the sudden death "round two" against the South African two-time U.S. champion.
Each time it let him down.
Holding a one-stroke lead over his three opponents thanks to a 50-foot birdie putt at 16 - the second in the four-hole playoff rotation - Levet drove into the right rough and then his second shot landed in a greenside bunker. He wound up with a bogey putt to stay in contention and, with Elkington and Appleby out, he made it to set up the confrontation with Els.
The two players were taken back to the 18th tee in their golfcarts and, while Els sat quietly in his, contemplating how he had squandered a 3-stroke lead with five holes of his final round to go, Levet beamed and waved to the fans as if amazed that he was still in contention.
Again he took the driver and this time the ball landed in a fairway bunker. His second shot landed well short of the green and he had to play his third before Els' second.
Again he refused to look like a defeated man.
A smiling Levet cupped his hand to his ear to try and swing the support of the fans his way and they responded with a roar.
The drama continued as Els dropped his second shot into a greenside bunker only for the South African to produce a stunning shot from the sand to within three feet of the hole.
He made it to win his first Open while Levet gained respect from the crowd as a colorful and adventurous player who should surely add successes to last year's British Masters and the 1992 Cannes Open.
"I will take second place at the Open every year," said Levet, who defended his tactics and choice of clubs at 18.
"I played the playoff the way I wanted. I was just not lucky on 17 and 18. On 17 I was a yard left (and landed in a bunker) and would have been on the green with two putts for a (birdie) four. On 18 I had an unplayable bunker shot. I'm two inches from carrying the bunker and getting onto the green."
Levet said his performance at Muirfield, which has given rise to some amazing twists and turns on a daily basis, will gain him some recognition and more openings to other tournaments.
"Hopefully I can take this and go forward," he said. "I'll be eligible for some more tournaments, like the U.S. PGA."