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British Open Win Not Easy For Els
by Doug Ferguson

GULLANE, Scotland (AP) ? For the Big Easy, it was anything but that. Beaten down by Tiger Woods during the last four years, Ernie Els faced even greater pressure Sunday in the British Open by squandering a three-stroke lead, a collapse that could have made him an emotional wreck the rest of his career.

"You can only take so much," Els said.

This time, he fought back.

Els rebounded from one setback after another, most of it his own doing, and outlasted Thomas Levet of France to win the British Open in a four-man playoff that produced the first sudden-death finish in the 142-year history of the tournament.

"It's just been an unbelievable four days and five holes," he said. "I didn't come here with a lot of confidence. I'm going to leave here as the Open champion. It's been a little journey for me this week."

Els was in despair after a double bogey on the 16th hole, which put him one stroke behind with two holes to play. Somehow, he pulled himself back together.

He finished birdie-par to get into the playoff, and he made all pars in the four holes of overtime to force sudden death with Levet.

Then came the most amazing par of all. With his right foot anchored on the top of a bunker left of the 18th green, Els dug in and blasted out to 5 feet (1.5 meters). The winning par putt just curled in the right side of the cup.

"That bunker shot was a piece of nerves," Levet said. "He's very, very talented. I lost to a great player."

Utterly exhausted, Els managed to toss his cap into the air and raise his arms in triumph. Moments later, he cradled the silver claret jug.

"I guess I've got a little fight in me when it counts," Els said. "It would have been a very hard loss if I didn't win this jug."

No other trophy has ever meant so much.

Els honed his game on European tour soil and was destined for greatness until Woods came along and started collecting majors at a frightening rate. Els has been runner-up to him twice in the majors, six times overall.

He won the British Open the same way he won his two U.S. Open titles - with grit and determination, unfazed even when it looked as though he had wasted his chances.

"This was one of the hardest tournaments I've ever played," Els said. "The emotions I went through today - I don't think I've ever been through that."

It was the third major championship for the 32-year-old Els, his first since the U.S. Open at Congressional five years ago.

None of three was easy, but this one tops the list.

Ahead by as many as three shots on the back nine, his lead was down to one when Els took double bogey on the par-3 16th.

"Walking off 16, I was like, 'Is this the way you want to be remembered? By screwing up in an Open championship?' That wasn't one of my finer moments," he said.

Els had no room for error, and didn't make any.

He finished birdie-par for a 1-under 70 to join Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington at 6-under 278.

The largest British Open playoff before Sunday involved three players in 1999 at Carnoustie and in 1989 at Royal Troon. The lowest score over four holes is the winner.

Els huddled with his psychologist, Jos Vanstiphout, as he tried to compose himself.

"He just basically agreed that I had four more holes to play," Els said. "And those four holes were the most important holes of my career. I was going to give it 100 percent."

Levet struck first, making a 50-foot (15 meter) birdie putt on the second hole in the playoff (No. 16). It was about the same distance as his eagle putt on the 71st hole that enabled him to shoot 66 and get into overtime.

But the Frenchman started to feel the pressure, and he was lucky to escape the final two playoff holes with a par and a bogey.

Appleby, who birdied three of the last four holes for a 65 to make the playoff, hit his approach into the right bunker, couldn't get on the green and made bogey to finish 1 over. Elkington, the '95 PGA champion who closed with a 66, missed a 6-foot par putt on No. 18 and also dropped out at 1 over.

Els and Levet, who finished the four-hole playoff in even par, headed back to the 18th. Levet found a pot bunker on the left side of the fairway, and the best he could do was advance it down the fairway. Bogey was imminent.

Els split the middle with a safe 2-iron, but then pulled a 5-iron into the greenside bunker, leaving himself more work. He came through with another clutch shot, then faced perhaps the longest 5-foot putt of his life.

It was shaky, but it was good enough.

"It was truly hard work, but nobody said it was going to be easy," Els said.

It proved to be far more difficult for Woods, who was trying to win the third leg of the Grand Slam but shot himself out of the tournament with an 81 in the third round, his worst score as a professional.

He left town on a much better note. Woods had seven birdies for a 65, matching the best score of a sunny, almost balmy day in Scotland. He finished at even-par 284, tied for 29th.

Though no one saw history in the making Sunday, the gallery was hardly deprived of drama. Muirfield was a mixture of cheers and moans that resounded across the links, and both belonged to Els.

Starting with No. 9, he birdied three of four holes to build a three-stroke lead and suddenly seized command of the tournament. If only the ending had been so easy.

The roller coaster began when Els hit into a pot bunker on the par-3 13th green that had a wall so steep that he could barely see over the top. He had to place his left foot on the sodded wall, and the ball was nestled in a furrow where the sand had been raked. Els dug in and blasted out to 2 feet for a remarkable save.

It was the kind of shot that wins majors, only Els had much more work left.

He found another bunker off the 14th tee and had to play out sideways, leading to bogey. But the real damage came on the par-3 16th, where Els had a one-stroke lead and a 7-iron in his hands.

He pulled it long and left, and all the way down a swale. Then, Els hit his chip too hard. It went to the front of the green, paused, then continued onto the fairway. He chipped back and missed an 8-foot putt, taking double bogey.

Suddenly one stroke behind, Els gathered himself quickly and smashed a drive down the 17th fairway, allowing him to easily reach the green in two and take two putts for birdie to make it a foursome at the top.

Els had a 30-foot birdie putt to avoid the playoff, but came up short.

If the sloppy ending looked familiar, think back to Southern Hills at the U.S. Open last year where Els' childhood friend, Retief Goosen, had a three-putt from 12 feet on the final hole to drop into a playoff.

Goosen won the 18-hole playoff the next day. Els only had to go five extra holes, but he accomplished his goal - a silver jug with his name on it.

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