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How Thomas Levet kept smiling at height of Muirfield drama

Thomas Levet celebrates a key putt during the play-off at Muirfield in 2002

Consider the unbearable tension that typically accompanies the closing stages of a major championship.

There have been occasions, of course, when players have run away with victory and reached the final holes in relatively stress-free positions, boasting huge leads. More often than not, though, the last hour or two of play is a time of enormous anxiety, for competitors and fans alike.

That was certainly the case for the majority at Muirfield in 2002, when The 131st Open culminated in a four-man play-off, the first in the Championship’s illustrious history.

Yet as he details in the latest episode of The Open Podcasts, one man at the very centre of the action, France’s Thomas Levet, was somehow able to keep a smile on his face as he encountered the biggest moment of his career.

Levet was not quite able to claim the Claret Jug in The 131st Open, but he won plenty of friends with the calibre of his play and the manner in which he went about his business.

This is the story of how he coped with one of the most nerve-jangling finishes in Open history.


There had already been an abundance of drama in The 131st Open prior to the the play-off that decided the Champion Golfer of the Year for 2002.

A diabolical Saturday storm. Gary Evans’ barely believable final round. Ernie Els suffering down the stretch. This was a Championship for the ages.

By the time 72 holes had been completed, long-time leader Els found himself tied with three other players - Steve Elkington, Stuart Appleby and Levet.

Elkington and Els had previously tasted major success, but this was new territory for the other play-off participants. For all four men, the opportunity of lifting the Claret Jug for the first time provided a massive test of character.

Still high on adrenaline after a sensational eagle at the 71st hole had vaulted him into contention, Levet felt ready to embrace the challenge.

“It’s golf and what is in front of you is the first hole,” said the Parisian. “It’s a massive par-4 and that’s what you have to deal with.

“Who else is playing the hole, it doesn’t matter. It could be the best player in the world, [but] he could hit the ball in the junk and make six, so concentrate on what you need to do and the other guys don’t matter.

“The game is hard enough. Concentrate on your hole and what you need to do. The other guys, they will have to struggle through that too.

“So I was quite confident and at ease with that play-off, actually. I was not that nervous.”

The pressure would only get more intense as Levet, Elkington, Els and Appleby, playing in two groups of two, took on the four play-off holes, the first, 16th, 17th and 18th.

A spectacular long-range birdie putt on 16 put Levet in the driving seat, but a bogey followed on 18, opening the door for Els in the group behind.

“I was quite confident and at ease with that play-off, actually. I was not that nervous.” Thomas Levet

By the time the ‘Big Easy’ finished with a par, the equation had become simpler. Elkington and Appleby, at one-over-par, were out of the running and sudden-death would be needed to separate Els and Levet.

It was at this point that the contrasting emotions of the two men proved particularly stark.

Els, who had appeared firmly on course to win in regulation play, looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. The South African would later acknowledge the anguish he felt as he battled to salvage a prize that had seemed to be well within his grasp only a couple of hours earlier.

Yet as the players were taken back to the 18th tee once again, Levet wore the broadest of smiles and could be seen actively engaging with the crowd.

How was he able to present such a relaxed demeanour at such a stressful time?

“It’s only a golf course, it’s only a golf game and you’re doing what you do best as well, which is playing golf. You shouldn’t be that nervous about it,” he explained.

“You go back all the way [to the tee], 400-and-something yards back in your buggy, and we passed not too far from the big stands. All the crowds [saying] ‘come on Levet. Let’s go, let’s go. Show me, I put money on you!’

“So you just wave to them and say you hear them and thank them for their support. It was fun to hear all that. It was nice.

“And with my way of concentrating as well. I could go to speak to those people for 10 minutes and come back and hit a shot, no problem. I’ve got a very short concentration process.

“I go through my concentration with no problem at all after talking to someone about, I don’t know, his wedding or something like that. It’s not an issue for me. I can go out of the game and in the game very quickly.

“And at that time it was for me the time to relax and enjoy. It was a nice moment.

Thomas Levet fist pumps on the 17th green at Muirfield

Thomas Levet on the final day at Muirfield

“I think he [Els] was more nervous than I was. Yeah, he was not in a happy place. He was on a bad day for him. It’s the toughest part, when you’re playing so well and you’re leading the tournament and you’re kind of losing it. And I was on the other side. I was pushing up.

“So I think he was a little more nervous than I was on 18, but I made him relax with my drive.”

Levet’s tee shot found a fairway bunker, denying him the opportunity to find the green in two. Yet there was to be another twist in the tale as Els then found a tricky position in the sand with his second shot.

What followed would ultimately decide the Championship.

“Once I played my second shot 100 or something yards away... and Ernie’s in the bunker next to the green, I’m talking to myself [saying] I need to hit it close,” said Levet.

“And I don’t hit it close enough, I hit it to maybe 30 feet, something like that, and he hits the bunker shot to three or four feet.”

Not for the first time, Els’ extraordinary bunker skills had come to the fore.

“That was an unreal bunker shot,” Levet continued. “Under those circumstances, the ball could go to 15-20 feet easily, or not go out of the bunker or stuff like that, but he stiffed it to maybe three or four feet.

“That’s where you can see the guy is made of different steel. He went through those experiences before and I think his experiences in majors helped him cope with that medium day for him. He still, through a medium day, managed to win – that was impressive.”

Similarly impressive was Levet’s reaction to defeat. The Frenchman could have been forgiven for being devastated after coming so close to Open glory. Yet within moments of the final putt being sunk, he lifted the giant figure of Els into the air in a remarkable show of sportsmanship... and strength.

Thomas Levet lifts Ernie Els into the air at the end of The 131st Open

Levet lifts Els into the air following the South African's winning putt

Asked how he managed to hoist Els into the sky, a laughing Levet replied: “French power!

“He’s only 125 kilos, it’s ok,” he continued with a smile.

“You know, when you give your 100 per cent and it’s not enough, whatever the game is, you have to congratulate the guy that is winning against you. And the same when you win. The person losing to you should congratulate you.

“I’ve never been a sore loser, so once it’s done, he’s made the putt, he’s made history, I can’t change anything. That’s it, he won. So better to enjoy the win than cry. I’ve never been a crier when I lose.

“I gave everything I have. No regrets. I tried everything I could to hang on and try to win. It didn’t go my way and it went my way in some other tournaments. So basically you have to congratulate the guy and he went through a tough day, you know.

“He basically gave us the play-off and he went through a hard time, so it was natural to congratulate him and his caddie as well.”

Levet would go on to contend again at Royal Troon two years later, where he led through 18 holes, trailed by one at the halfway stage and ultimately finished fifth.

To hear more about his experiences at golf’s original Championship – including those impressive displays in 2002 and 2004 – listen to his Tales of The Open episode today.

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