THE Open championship (not the British Open, though Americans like to call it that) is one of the classic events in the sporting calendar. The latest, which was held last week at Muirfield, on the Firth of Forth, also tends to produce great champions, and this year a very good player joined the roster. Ernie Els of South Africa won on the fifth hole of a play-off, having done his best to throw his chance away. Being one of the good guys, he was a popular winner.
At one stage on the final round Els was eight under par, and apparently in command of his destiny. But he faltered, dropping three strokes before he gained the birdie at the 17th hole that carried him into the play-off, the first in Open history to feature four men. Eventually he scraped through, a nervous wreck, and accepted the Claret Jug. After a championship remarkable for many things, notably the 81 that Tiger Woods, the world's finest player, shot on the third afternoon, 'Stormy Saturday', he proved a true champion.
Woods, who began the tournament as the winner of the two previous major championships this year, and who was strongly fancied to add a third, put a brave face on his ordeal in the wind and rain. 'That was the best score I could have shot,' he said, with no trace of a fib. He found out, as have others before him, that the Open on a links course is a mighty challenge when it blows, a challenge designed to test the mettle of a golfer, and Woods came through that test with his honour intact. Unsuccessful on this occasion, this man is a champion in every fibre of his being.
Cohn Montgomerie, sadly, is not. The gifted Scot, who has been the most successful player in Europe for the better part of a decade, has still to win a major tournament, and that failure hurts him deeply. So deeply, in fact, that he has withdrawn from competition for a fortnight to compose himself. Stung by press criticism of his conduct during the Open, when he rebuffed the wellintentioned inquiries of a BBC reporter, and then offered a selective view of his temperamental foibles, he has retired to his Surrey home to consider what the future holds.
Montgomerie matched an Open record when he followed his third-round 64 with a final round 20 strokes heavier, three more than Woods and many more than he could bear. There are performers in every sport who fail to fulfil their potential, and it seems that Montgomerie, who wears his heart on his sleeve, will never claim the championships he needs to rank among the very best players. The knowledge is driving him doolally.
Els had won two majors before Muirfield but he won them in 1994 and 1997 before the emergence of Woods, whose precocity has turned every championship into 'Tiger versus the field'. Had he failed to win, Els might well have ended up in the emotional state that crippled Montgomerie, and he was brave enough to acknowledge that after he holed his winning putt. Now that he is an Open champion he can go on to win again.
It was a terrific four days in East Lothian. Golf retains an honour among peers that other sports have mislaid, and the people who follow the players round the course arc knowledgable, partly because many have played the holes themselves and know how difficult they are. What you have, therefore, is a pooled expertise, and a respect for the game as well as for the golfers. 'They are the most knowledgable fans in the world,' Els said in the glow of victory.
Well done, that man. But oh dear, Monty. It is painful to see him suffer so much for his ambition.