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Muirfield triumph anything but easy for Els and Roberts
Ricci Roberts congratulates Ernie Els on his dramatic Open triumph in 2002

No one ever said winning an Open Championship was easy, but Ernie Els was forced to come through two particularly gruelling tests on the weekend he first claimed the Claret Jug.

The South African eventually triumphed at Muirfield in 2002 after coming through a four-man play-off and an additional sudden-death hole with Thomas Levet.

Yet the drama of the final day was at least played out in bright sunshine. Just 24 hours earlier, Els and the rest of the field in The 131st Open were forced to contend with some of the most challenging weather conditions in the Championship’s history.

In the latest instalment of our Caddie Stories series, Ricci Roberts, the man on the bag for all four of Els’ major wins, recalls just how tough it was on that stormy Saturday.

“I’d walked the course in the morning because I went to check the pin positions,” explained Roberts. “Even though you get the pin sheet, I like to go and have a look at the pins, because you sort of get this picture in your mind of where to hit it, where's the best possible spot for you to putt from, what could be the easiest putt.

“And I looked out and I saw this black mass coming in over the water, and I thought, 'ooh, that doesn't look too good'.

Anyway, I came off 18 and Tiger (Woods) was about to go to the first tee as this weather moved in. We've played a lot with Tiger and, in his eyes, I could see he was like 'wow, what is this coming through here?'”

Woods would quickly drop out of contention with an uncharacteristic 10-over-par 81, one of 10 scores in the 80s as gusting winds and heavy rain buffeted the coastline in Gullane.

Tiger Woods experiences the worst of the weather at Muirfield in 2002

After beginning the day in a five-way share of the lead, Els, who at least had the benefit of playing his final few holes after the storm had passed, performed magnificently to card a one-over 72 and earn a two-stroke lead heading into the final round.

"We were fortunate in a way that we only had to play 14 or 15 holes in this monsoon, but I have to say it was probably right up there with one of the hardest days ever on a links golf course that I've ever seen,” said Roberts. “That weather was brutal.

"Ernie played absolutely amazing that day and I guess that was the catalyst moving forward into Sunday, which got his confidence up.”

Having come through such a stern examination of his mental strength, Els duly recovered from a nervy start on Sunday to take command of the Championship once again.

However, a wobble down the closing stretch, which after a phenomenal par save from a greenside bunker on the 13th saw him bogey the 14th and double-bogey the 16th, meant Els relinquished his advantage and instead entered a play-off with Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby.

Ernie Els during the final round of The 131st Open at Muirfield in 2002

Detailing his thoughts ahead of the play-off, Roberts said: “He should have closed it out. When he made that double on 16, that par-3, I thought, 'whoa, we've blown this now'. But, you know, he hung in there and he played some of the most unbelievable bunker shots I think I've ever seen in my life.

“(I was thinking) we're still there, it's not over yet, you've got another go at it. You can't let yourself get too down because then you're gonna pass the advantage on to the opposition. You've still got to stay upbeat. You're still in the picture.

“I'm just trying to keep him calm and I think a lot of times when these guys get into that situation the adrenaline starts flowing and some times they're quite eager to get on with it or (they) get ahead of themselves. You need to sometimes just pull in the reins a little. So there's a lot of stuff going on.

"Majors, there's only four every year and The Open Championship is the biggest and the best of all of them. You only get four goes every year and I tell you, that's pressure.”

Els ultimately prevailed, with a par on the 18th at the start of sudden death enough to defeat Levet after Elkington and Appleby had been eliminated over the initial four-hole play-off. A perennial Open contender who had finished second and third in 2000 and 2001 respectively, Els could finally revel in the fact he was the Champion Golfer of the Year - a title he had long appeared capable of claiming.

Ernie Els, the Champion Golfer of the Year at Muirfield in 2002

“It was a massive relief, there's no question about that,” added Roberts, who would go on to witness just how much Els valued the Claret Jug.

“He never let that thing out of his sight. He took it everywhere. We had a lot of fun, I can tell you that much.”

Another Open triumph came the way of Els 10 years later at Royal Lytham & St Annes as he and Roberts once again teamed up to great effect on the grandest stage.

"I've been fired a few times. We make Richard Burton and Liz Taylor look like a bunch of novices,” joked Roberts. “(But) when the pressure's on, we have a good working relationship. Over the last 27 years we've had a lot of success. I would say, you know, clearly the chemistry's good.”