Ernie Els will be bidding to join an august group of just 16 golfers when he travels to Scotland to defend the title at this summer’s Open Championship at Muirfield.
The South African will emulate a star-studded cast comprising Tom Morris Snr, Tom Morris Jnr, Jamie Anderson, Bob Ferguson, J H Taylor, Harry Vardon, James Braid, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington should he claim a second consecutive victory and he would also become part of an even more select group of players were he to win the title at the historic home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers for a second Championship in-a-row.
Since the turn of the 20th century just five players have won successive Open Championships at the same venue. James Braid was the first man to achieve that feat when he won at Muirfield in both 1901 and 1906 and St Andrews in 1905 and 1910 and subsequently Walter Hagen (1922 and 1928 at Royal St George’s), Jack Nicklaus (1970 and 1978 at St Andrews), Seve Ballesteros (1979 and 1988 at Royal Lytham & St Annes), Nick Faldo (1987 and 1992 at Muirfield) and Tiger Woods (2000 and 2005 at St Andrews) have also followed suit.
Els will be endeavouring to become the sixth golfer to join that illustrious group after winning The Open on the last occasion it was held at Muirfield back in 2002. That remains the only Championship to be decided in a four-man play-off and its dramatic finale ensured that five out of Muirfield’s last six Open Championships have been settled by one stroke or less.
Woods came into the 2002 Championship as the clear favourite after wins in the Masters and US Open had made him just the fifth man to complete that double in a single calendar year. Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951 and 1953), Arnold Palmer (1960) and Jack Nicklaus (1972) had all accomplished that feat before him but, as with Hogan (in 1953), the third leg of the elusive Grand Slam proved one step too far.
At Muirfield in 1972 the Golden Bear’s bid to land three successive Majors had ended when he finished a single shot behind Lee Trevino but back at the same venue 30 years later Woods failed to get as close after posting a ruinous 81 in driving wind and horizontal rain during the third round.
That day Els had also started in the worst of the weather but conditions relented as he reached the turn and the South African cruised home in 32 to post a 72 that saw him finish the round two shots in front of Denmark’s Soren Hansen and three ahead of a cosmopolitan septet comprising Justin Leonard, Justin Rose, Scott McCarron, Sergio Garcia, Thomas Bjorn, Des Smyth and Shigeki Maruyama. The following day he moved three shots clear of the field when he birdied the 12th but then squandered his advantage before claiming a birdie on the 17th to tie France’s Thomas Levet and Australian duo, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby, on six under par 278. He went on to beat the Frenchman with a par on the fifth hole of what had originally been scheduled as a four-hole play-off.
The South African’s win at Muirfield in 2002 was his third consecutive top-three finish in the Championship. He went on to lose to Todd Hamilton in a play-off at the 2004 Open at Royal Troon and then finish third behind Woods and Chris DiMarco in the 2006 Championship at Royal Liverpool but it would be a further six years before he was to win the title again.
Darren Clarke caused a major surprise when he claimed the 2011 Open at Royal St George’s aged 42 at the 22nd time of asking and 12 months later 42 year-old Els repeated that feat on his own 22nd appearance in the Championship.
The South African was regarded in some quarters as past his best when he arrived at Royal Lytham for the 2012 Championship but he proved the doubters wrong when he opened with rounds of 67, 70 and 68 and then took advantage of a late collapse by Adam Scott when he closed with another 68 sealed with a glorious 20-foot birdie putt across the 72nd green.
“I’m numb at the moment,” Els admitted after watching the Australian drop four shots to par over his last four holes to come up one tantalising shot short of his seven under par 273 total. “Adam’s a great friend of mine and obviously we both wanted to win for different reasons.
“I really feel for him but it’s the nature of the beast and that’s why we’re out here,” he added. “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Today it was my time again.”