Todd Hamilton continued the American dominance of Open Golf Championships at Royal Troon when he claimed the 133rd battle for the Claret Jug with a dramatic victory over Ernie Els in a four-hole play-off, after both players had ended the tournament on ten under par 274.
Hamilton, a former member of the Japan and Asian Tours who gained his card for his home US PGA Tour at the Qualifying School last November, showed nerves of steel to post par figures at all four of the play-off holes – the first, second, 17th and 18th – to beat Els by a shot, the crucial difference coming at the short 17th where the South African missed the green to the left from the tee and made bogey four.
Ironically, as in regulation play, Hamilton did not play the 18th well and did not make the green in two, but unlike the 72nd hole, he produced an exquisite pitch to two feet. Els knew in his heart he had to make his birdie putt from 15 feet to prolong matters, but it slipped past the hole, leaving Hamilton to tap in for a momentous victory
Although the 500/1 odds quoted at the start of the week for Hamilton were similar to those given for Ben Curtis last year, his win was not as big a surprise, as the 38 year old was a prolific winner in the Far East before, in March this year, he won his first US PGA Tour title when he held off the challenge of Davis Love III by a shot to win the Honda Classic in Florida.
Nevertheless it was still a fantastic achievement for the man who occasionally helps out in his father Kent’s grocery store in Illinois, and who now follows in the footsteps of Justin Leonard (1997), Mark Calcavecchia (1989, also after a four-hole play-off), Tom Watson (1982), Tom Weiskopf (1973) and Arnold Palmer (1962) as American Champions at Royal Troon.
“It hasn’t really sunk in just yet but I am beginning to realise what I have accomplished today,” he said. “It was hard work because Ernie is a true champion and fought right to the end, that is why he is the Major winner he is.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep for days now I am so excited. I normally sleep on the way home on the ‘plane but I don’t think that will be happening either. It was just great today and I tried to look around as much as I could to soak up the atmosphere and the occasion. I have won a lot of titles around the world but nothing, obviously, on this stage. To be the Open Champion is very special."
Els, who was hoping to emulate the achievement of another great South African golfer Bobby Locke who won at Royal Troon in 1950, came agonisingly close to adding another Open title to the one he claimed, also in a play-off, at Muirfield in 2002.
The South African, winner of the Volvo Order of Merit last year, battled supremely in the tension of the back nine and did remarkably well to get into the play-off but found it was just not be his day. Typically though, he was gracious towards the new Champion.
“He played really well and for the two days that I partnered him he never really made any mistakes,” he said. “He kept his nerve well and is a great champion, and I know how much he is going to enjoy this.
“I really didn’t want to let this one go but I didn’t play a very good play-off, missed some putts, and that was that. Coming that close and not winning is obviously a disappointment but I have had a great week and getting into the play-off from where I was, was a great effort so that is a positive.”
A nerve-tingling play-off was, in many ways, a fitting conclusion to what had been an exhilarating and enthralling final day’s play, reaffirming once again the Open Golf Championship as the premier championship in world golf.
Once again, European Tour Members played a prominent part in that as, apart from Els, three others – Lee Westwood, Thomas Levet and Retief Goosen, finished in the top eight.
Pride of place went to Westwood who equalled the best round of the final day with a superb four under par 67 for a six under par total of 278 to come from outside the top ten at the start of the day to take fourth place, three behind third placed Phil Mickelson, who closed with a 68 for 275.
The Englishman’s round was all the more remarkable considering that, after five holes he was two over par for the day having dropped shots at the third and fifth.
But after that Westwood was scintillating, producing birdies at the sixth, seventh, and eighth to be out in 35. Turning for home he kept the pressure on with birdies at the tenth and 16th before holing from 15 feet at the 17th for par to keep the momentum going.
However, as with all good entertainers, Westwood saved the best for last, finding the back of the green at the 18th but rolling in a magnificent 40 foot putt for birdie three, punching the air with delight as the ball dropped below ground.
“I got off to the worst possible start but I am happy with myself the way I came back from that and especially the way I played coming in,” he said. “I holed some good putts, especially on the last three holes, and it is always nice to finish like that, just managing to squeeze one in from 40 feet!”
One shot behind Westwood, Levet finished tied fifth with Davis Love III after his final round 72. The Frenchman, who had thrilled the galleries with victory at Loch Lomond a week ago, endeared himself to more Scottish supporters with another wonderful showing and, having had to grab one of the last places on offer for the championship this year, spared himself that for St Andrews in 2005 with his high finish.
One shot behind Levet and Love, Retief Goosen, the Volvo Order of Merit winner in 2001 and 2002 finished tied for seventh place with American Scott Verplank. The winner of the US Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills last month was many people’s pick for the title, but the South African could not quite find the range on the greens and had to settle for a final round 73 and a four under par total of 280.
Almost as soon as all the above mentioned players made their way onto the golf course in the early afternoon, the excitement crackled around all corners of the famous old Ayrshire links, the thousands of spectators thrilled by scintillating golf which at times bordered on the unbelievable.
Proving that point perfectly was a wonderful 20 minute spell in the early stages when the best players in the world proved exactly why they have that reputation with a magical array of shots. First off was the 2003 Masters Tournament Champion Mike Weir who holed a bunker shot at the fifth to be followed by Levet who pitched in for an eagle three from the rough at the back of the fourth green.
Not to be outdone by the Canadian, World Number One Tiger Woods repeated Weir’s feat from the same bunker at the fifth before Mickelson did a ‘Levet’ and pitched in, this time from the front of the fourth green, for his own eagle three.
At that point, any one of a dozen players had realistic claims to the Claret Jug including European Tour Members Barry Lane, Goosen, Els and Levet, along with Hamilton, Mickelson, Weir and Woods. But, as the field turned for home, the traditionally harder part of the golf course, along with the tension of the occasion, began to take hold.
Through the turn, the contest appeared to be between Hamilton, Mickelson and Els but the South African seemed to have handed the initiative to the American duo when he double bogeyed the tenth after finding trouble from the tee to drop back to seven under par, two shots behind.
Another poor tee shot at the 11th landed in a gorse bush leaving Els in more trouble as he had no option but to hack at the ball and move it only 20 feet forward. But the South African showed tremendous courage to fire his third shot to ten feet from where he holed for an unlikely par four.
Els’s courage resurfaced again at the 13th where he holed from 30 for a birdie to edge closer to the leaders, but Hamilton once again moved forward with an audacious pitch in from the back of the 14th green for a birdie two to move to ten under, two clear of both Els and Mickelson, the American having bogeyed the 13th moments earlier, his first dropped shot since the 17th in Thursday’s first round.
However Els and Mickelson, who contested a thrilling final day in the Masters Tournament in April, battled on and got to nine under respectively with birdies at the 16th. Incredibly however, Hamilton responded again with his own birdie at the 16th to remain two shots ahead.
Back came Els with a birdie at the 17th, firing a fantastic four iron to ten feet and rolling in the putt. With Mickelson unable to birdie either of the closing holes to finish at nine under, the South African came to the last one behind Hamilton.
And, as so often happens in Major Championships, the most telling drama was reserved for the 72nd hole. While Els played the hole in textbook fashion, Hamilton did not, his tee shot flying right into the rough from where his second flew left next to the crowd control barriers.
After having taken relief, Hamilton pitched to 18 feet but failed with his par putt leaving Els, 15 feet away in two, with a putt, incredibly, for the Championship outright. But although the putt was struck well, it drifted past the edge of the cup sending both players into the drama of the play-off.