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Player Feature



Ernie Els reigns supreme at Muirfield

Winning or losing, thriving or struggling, Ernie Els is calmness personified in his pursuit of the game’s biggest prizes - his swing so relaxed it looks almost lazy regardless of the situation.

The South African’s gentle demeanour makes it tough to tell whether he’s in contention for the Claret Jug or enjoying a Sunday stroll on his local course and it’s a manner which has charmed golf fans across the globe. 

Els has thrilled fans for decades and produced some of the greatest moments The Open has ever seen and there is no doubt the South African is one of the best links players of his generation.

Magic at Muirfield

Els proved that at Muirfield in 2002. Faced with a four-way play-off, he kept his cool to win the Claret Jug for the first time – playing some of the finest strokes the course has ever seen.

Renowned as perhaps the fairest test of all The Open’s venues, mastering Muirfield’s troublesome wind, which does not blow in the same direction for two consecutive holes, is the key to success.

Els made a solid start, firing a one-under 70 to sit three shots off the lead of Carl Pettersson, David Toms and Duffy Waldorf before a thrilling 66 on day two catapulted him into a share of the lead.

However, The Open always manages to strike back and the wind whipped up on Saturday with Els managing to get round in 72.

Ernie Els Muirfield 2002

That gave him a two-shot lead and a supposedly clear path to the Claret Jug. But Sunday was far more dramatic than many would have imagined it becoming.

Brilliant bunkers

Els stumbled through the opening nine lacking the fluency which had helped him build that lead. Still, he continued to battle away – displaying a moment of magic on the 13th that helped him retain his lead.

After firing his tee shot at the 191-yard par-three 13th into the left bunker, Els was faced with at least one dropped shot. However, pressed up against the face of the bunker, he carved the ball up and over the lip, dropping it perfectly on the right-sloping green and rolling it to within two feet of the hole.

It was later awarded shot of the year, a combination of brute strength, enviable technique and breath-taking grace that sums up Els’ overall game. Still, that was not enough to hold off the chasing pack and a bogey at 14 left the door open.

Through it came Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington. Els was on the backfoot.

Four-way play-off

Els had a putt for the title but it came up just short on 18, ensuring a play-off with Levet, Elkington and Appleby.

Levet drew first blood but Els gradually battled back, leaving Appleby and Elkington staring at the exit after four holes. To sudden death it went, and Levet had to display all of his battling spirit to get his ball out of the bunker at 18 and into a reasonable position down the fairway.

Els had the advantage but put his second into the bunker, leaving an awkward lie with one foot in and one foot of the sand. Still, he conjured up one last moment of magic, dropping his shot to within three feet of the hole and leaving a putt for the Claret Jug, which he would go on to make.

For Els, it was a special moment. "At times I thought I would never get my hands on this," he said. "It is one of the hardest tournaments I have ever had to play, but it has been the most rewarding.

"This is the greatest championship in the world and the greatest crowd in the world."