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Monday, 14 July 2003
Alongside the flagship Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth Club, the Open Golf Championship has always represented the jewel at the heart of summer on The European Tour International Schedule.

It is the oldest of the four Major Championships and one which has seen great success for European Tour Members over the years, up to and including 12 months ago at Muirfield when Ernie Els triumphed and celebrated by displaying the Claret Jug in the clubhouse at Wentworth Club for the whole of his tenure as Champion.

The 132nd Open Golf Championship, at Royal St George's Golf Club, Sandwich, Kent, England, is the culmination of a glorious month on The European Tour International Schedule, a four week spell in which the total prize money on offer topped the €14 million mark. In that time Philip Golding has won the €416,660 first prize in the Open de France, Phillip Price won the €481,245 first prize in the Smurfit European Open and Els won the €532,888 first prize in The Barclays Scottish Open.

It is a testament to the continuing growth and overall current strength of The European Tour that this stunning prize fund represents almost three times the total of €4,769,416 available for the entire 1985 season, the year European Tour Member Sandy Lyle recorded his memorable Open Golf Championship victory at Sandwich.

Going into the final round, Lyle was three shots off the lead but opportunity knocked for the Scot when he conjured up one of the most famous birdies in Open history at the long 14th, firing a two iron to the centre of the green and holing a 40 foot putt, after his errant drive had left a pitch from the deep rough as his only option.

Lyle followed it with another birdie at the 15th but even then the Championship was not assured, especially as he bogeyed the last, memorably dropping to his knees in anguish when his attempted chip from Duncan's Hollow to the left of the 18th green, rolled back to his feet.

But the man who would go on to win The Masters Tournament at Augusta National three years later showed immense courage to pitch and putt for a bogey five before enduring an anxious wait in the clubhouse until his triumph was confirmed.

"There were a lot of parties and different celebrations," recalled Lyle. "The memories are still strong because that success changed my career. When you add on the victory at The Masters, I knew Sandwich wasn't a flash in the pan and I could win the biggest tournaments. Those were good years for me."

When the Open returned to Royal St George's eight years later in 1993, it was the turn of Honorary European Tour Member Greg Norman to lift the famous old trophy, the Great White Shark's scintillating final round 64 displaying his swashbuckling golf at its best as he stormed home ahead of Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer.

For Faldo in particular, it was frustrating as the Englishman had harboured hopes of becoming the first player since Tom Watson in 1982-83 to win successive Open titles, following his victory at Muirfield in 1992.

However, frustration was a very rare emotion for the Englishman in the Open Golf Championship sphere, for his win in East Lothian cemented Faldo's place as one of the greatest European golfers of all time and saw the continuation of the Englishman's golden years after his previous victories at St Andrews in 1990 and at Muirfield for the first time in 1987.

Moving forward to 1999, there was further European Tour joy at Carnoustie when Paul Lawrie became the first Scottish-born golfer to win the Open Golf Championship in Scotland since Tommy Armour won, coincidentally, at Carnoustie in 1931.

Starting the final round ten shots adrift of leader Jean Van de Velde, Lawrie's final round 67, the best of the day in the demanding conditions, propelled him up the leader board and into a four-hole play-off with the Frenchman and the 1997 Champion Justin Leonard.

Lawrie continued in the play-off where he had left off in regulation play, birdies at the demanding 17th and 18th holes good enough for an emotionally charged victory. It represented the biggest final round comeback in Open history and also equalled The European Tour record set by Jamie Spence in 1992 when he came from ten shots adrift to win the Canon European Masters.

"I never thought I would get into a play-off so I just tried to stay focused on each shot and somehow managed it," said the Scot. "But to win in front of a home crowd was absolutely incredible."

The next play-off in Open history came in 2002 and brought further European Tour joy as Ernie Els claimed his third Major Championship title, beating fellow European Tour Member Thomas Levet and Australians Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington.

Els added the Open crown to an already impressive golfing CV at the end of one of the most fluctuating Championships in history during which the variable Scottish weather contributed to the sense of drama and excitement, and where seven other European Tour Members, Thomas Björn, Gary Evans, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, Søren Hansen, Padraig Harrington and Peter O'Malley, finished in the top 13.

During regulation play Els produced several shots of pure genius, including a wondrous bunker escape at the 13th hole. It was a stroke which kept his challenge alive and a shot which was later voted The European Tour Shot of the Year, an appropriate accolade for a player who would go on to be voted Asprey Golfer of the Year for 2002.

Into the play-off, Appleby and Elkington were eliminated after the initial four holes, leaving The European Tour Members to battle it out. Returning to the 18th tee, Levet took driver and found sand while Els split the fairway with an iron.

But the South African pulled his approach into a tough, downhill lie in a greenside bunker, leaving Levet to splash out of the fairway trap and hit his third to the front of the green. With one foot on grass, Els produced a wonder stroke from the bunker to four feet and, after Levet missed his par effort, he eased in the putt which secured the title.

"I had been after this title for ten years since I finished fifth in my first Open at Muirfield in 1992 and at times I thought I would never get my hands on it," said Els. "It is one of the hardest tournaments to play but the most rewarding. It is the greatest Championship and is truly Open in every sense of the word."

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