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Double defence for Ernie

Ernie Els is just less than seven weeks away from experiencing a rare sporting achievement when he travels to Scotland for what will be the 142nd playing of The Open Championship.

The Open will be staged at Muirfield, a storied links on the Firth of Forth in Gullane, East Lothian, about 35 kilometres from Edinburgh, and home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers that was formed in 1744 - thus making it the oldest club in the world with continuous and chronicled history.

Els will have the distinction of teeing up on the first tee on Thursday, July 18 (The Open is always staged to coincide with the third weekend in July) as a double defending champion – the man returning the Claret Jug to the Royal & Ancient having claimed it for a second time at Royal Lytham & St Annes last year and the last champion, in 2002, to have won the championship at Muirfield.

Els’ two victories bookended a difficult time in his career when it was thought he would not again arrive at one of the majors with the eight letters that make up his name etched as the last on the trophy.

That changed amid scenes of operatic drama at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2012 as the championship built to an epic finale: the excitement of Els’ stirring surge over the final nine, the agony of Adam Scott’s painful collapse and the tangible joy of a man once more basking in the applause of one of the most generous crowds anywhere in sport.

In time the 2012 Open will be remembered for Scott failing to make the one par he needed on the final four holes to win what would have been his first major. Like Jean van de Velde’s even more agonising implosion at Carnoustie in 1999 that is the nature of sport; abject failure at the final hurdle makes for more compelling memories.

But a more thorough telling of the tale will record that a factor in Scott making the mistakes that cost him so dearly was the strong finish produced by Els.

Going into the back nine on that fateful afternoon Ernie was six shots off the pace; with four holes to play he was still four behind but in the heat of battle he managed to put together the hole-by-hole scores that Scott couldn’t, including an emphatic birdie three at the last that sent the roar of the crowd rippling back to the young Australian, adding to the tremors he was already feeling.

Els played the last nine holes in 32 shots, with four birdies and no drops. He closed with a two-under-par 68, the best round among the third-round front-runners, while Scott, who led by four shots after three rounds, following a course record six-under-par 64, a 67 and a 68, fell apart with bogeys on each of the last four holes to stumble to a 75.

Els completed the last four holes in 15 strokes, Scott needed 20. Under the most intense pressure Ernie was able to delve into his golfing soul and find the resolve to steady the nerves that had let him down so many times in the previous decade to win his second Open and his fourth major (to go with two US Opens).

After the third round last year Els had uttered these prophetic words: "For some reason I've got some belief this week, I feel something special can happen," and he should certainly have good feelings about returning to Muirfield to defend the title.

Muirfield is widely regarded as one of the finest links in the world – Jack Nicklaus rates it as the best of The Open courses – with its layout of two nines running clockwise and counter-clockwise and constant changes of direction and, according to caddie Ricci Roberts, it suits Els’ eye.

The Big Easy will feel comfortable there but if he is in the hunt coming down the stretch on the fourth day he’ll be hoping for less strain than the last time he was the last man left standing at Muirfield.

In 2002 Els prevailed after a four-man, four-hole play-off against Australians Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby and Frenchman Thomas Levet – the first ever four-man tie in the Open – over holes 1, 16, 17 and 18.

Els and Levet played the four holes in level par, thus eliminating the pair of Australians who were one over, and then went into a sudden-death play-off against Levet, getting up and down out of a greenside bunker at the 18th to take the title.

Earlier at the 13th Els played what is considered one of the greatest bunker shots ever. With one foot wedged high against the riveted bunker face and unable to see the putting surface, Ernie managed to plop the ball out to less than a metre to save his par.

Gary Player, in 1959, was South Africa’s other Open championship victor at Muirfield – the first of his nine Majors. Player, 23, had finished second to Tommy Bolt in the US Open the year before and was clearly destined for bigger things, but he too did not get to kiss the Claret Jug without some anguish.

In those days they played 36 holes on the final day and Player came to the last well set to set a challenging total for those still on the course to try to beat.

But he fell foul of the treacherous bunkers that guard Muirfield’s 18th and stumbled to a double bogey 6. Player was inconsolable (there is a famous picture of his wife Vivienne hugging him as he sobs beside the 18th green) thinking he had thrown the championship away.

But, as the adage that could almost have been written for golf goes, “it ain’t over till it’s over,” and his nearest challengers - Fred Bullock and Belgian Flory van Donck - tried but failed to match his total of 284 and South African golf had its next Major winner to follow in the spike marks of the great Bobby Locke.

Each week Dan Retief, in association with Glenmorangie, will be bringing you a new Open Championship column as we build up to the Muirfield event that starts on Thursday, July 18.

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