For 13 holes of his final round at Lytham, Adam Scott showed no emotion, no fist-pumping to the crowd no high-fiving with his caddie, Steve Williams, no demonstration of passion about the remarkable situation he found himself in. He was cool out there. Deadpan. Staying in the moment. On the 14th, Scott’s tee-shot found the middle of the fairway, his approach found the middle of the green and his putt found the middle of the cup – and finally he gave vent to his feelings, punching the air momentarily, just as he was entitled to do. The birdie gave the Australian a four-shot lead with four holes to play in the Open championship. After 45 majors stretching back a dozen years he could, at last, see the finishing line. And maybe that was the problem.
Scott walked to the next tee and knocked a lovely drive down the 15th hole. “I honestly thought that when he striped it down the 14th and striped it down the middle of the 15th that this guy is going to win this and win it nicely,” said his playing partner, Graeme McDowell. “Little did I know.”
His approach on 15 found a bad spot in the sand on the left side of the green, an awkward position that required Scott to play his bunker shot with one leg in the sand and one leg out – and he played it beautifully. In analysing where it all went wrong you have to start with the short par putt he then missed on 15, but even then, following his every step, there was no hint of an imminent collapse, no suggestion of the drama to come.
His lead was down to three, but on Thursday morning had you offered him a three stroke advantage on the field with three to play he wouldn’t so much have grabbed your hand off as ripped your arm out of its socket. His body language was still of a man in control, as his tee-shot on 16 illustrated. He ripped it down the middle and then played up on to the green. His birdie putt finished four feet away from the hole, then he missed the next one for par. Only then could you feel the tension in the air around him.
“The putt on 16,” said McDowell. “It was huge for him to miss that. I said to him when he hit his first putt, ‘good putt’. And he didn’t respond. He’d left himself a bit of a knee-knocker. That putt horseshoed on him and it was the start of a series of events that he’ll think a lot about tonight.”
“If I make the putt on 15 or 16,” said Scott, “it’s a very different position and a lot more comfortable. It’s a hard hole, 15, but a poor putt there. And then I let one slip at 16. We got to the 16th tee and we’d said (himself and Williams) that it’s six good swings from there to finish out a round. And that’s what I was trying to do.”
Bogey-bogey, his lead over Ernie Els, playing a couple of groups ahead of him, was now down two with two to play. Scott found the fairway on 17 but as he walked towards his ball an enormous roar came sweeping across the course from the 18th green, a cacophony that everybody – Scott most of all – instantly knew the significance of. Els had made birdie up there to walk into the clubhouse on 7-under. In the blink of an eye, Scott’s lead was down to one.
“Yeah, I heard it (the roar for Els),” he said. “I didn’t even have to look at the leaderboard to realise the situation. No, it didn’t have any (impact on what happened next).” You have to wonder. Scott’s 6-iron approach on 17 was a calamity, his ball missing the green to the left and ending up in the kind of place that would have even fried the nerves of those used to being in this kind of pressure situation which, of course, Scott is not.
“He hit a great drive down the middle of 17,” said McDowell. “Half of England is right of that pin and he missed it left. It’s hard to watch a guy do that. When he hit the second shot on 17 the alarm bell started to ring. I thought, ‘Hold on, we’ve got a problem here’.”
Looking back, Scott identified 17 as the moment it really unravelled for him, more so than 15 and 16 and even 18. “I just turned it over into the 17th. It wasn’t a good shot. It’s the one I look at and am most disappointed about. It all comes down to that. At that point I’m still in control of the tournament and if I hit a nice shot somewhere to the right of the hole I can go to the last with the lead.
“When I was over the ball I felt like I was going to hit a good shot, but I didn’t make a good swing. I had 178 or 176 yards and pretty much as I looked up and saw the line it was on I knew it was in a bit of trouble.”
When Scott chopped it out of the rough to 18 feet and then missed another par putt the galleries by the green groaned in sympathy. His lead had evaporated. As he walked to the 18th hole, a place that has caused so much damage to so many who have arrived there in the past with a chance of winning this championship, he was level with Els. The thought of him gathering himself to make birdie to win by one was a piece of fantasy that surely nobody indulged in during those moments. The burning issue was whether Scott could make the par that would have got him into a play-off. If you took a poll on that18th tee, there would not have been many who thought him capable of doing it.
Scott could have played for position by using an iron. Instead he took 3-wood and put himself in a horrible spot in a pot bunker to the left of the fairway. Again, we heard disbelieving noises the length of the hole.
“Where is he?”
“In the face of the bunker.”
“Oh my God!”
“I just hit a real bullet and it held on its line,” said Scott. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the shot I needed right there.” It was a catastrophe. All Scott could do was take his medicine and chip out on to the fairway, then hope like hell he could pitch and putt for the par he needed for the play-off. The pitch was good, the putt was not. “It was never really on the line I was intending. It just never really looked like it was going in.”
The nightmare was complete.
“He’s a great, great player and that’s what I tried to convey to him on the last green,” said McDowell. “It felt like a futile exercise to say anything to him, but I’m sure he’s going to be unbelievably disappointed. He’s going to be extremely heartbroken. I guess my own disappointment seems relatively stupid. I’ve just seen a guy lose the Open championship.”
There are debates to be had about the most profound breakdowns in major championship golf and where this one ranks. Right up there with the worst of them is the general view. What is beyond question is that Scott’s initial reaction to the breakdown was one of the golfing understatements of our lifetime. He called his bogey-bogey-bogey-bogey run a “sloppy finish.” If it was merely sloppy he’d have won. But, then, in his heart he’ll know this.
“I was surprisingly calm the whole round,” he said. “I was a little nervous on the first tee, but less so than Saturday. I was out there and I felt completely in control. Even the last few holes I didn’t really feel it was a case of nerves or anything. I put myself in a position where I had to hit a great tee-shot off the last and I didn’t hit a great one. But I was quite calm.
“I know I’ve left a really great chance slip through my fingers, but somehow I’ll look back and take the positives from it. I don’t think I’ve ever played this well in a major championship. Today is one of those days.”
He was calmer than expected. No sign of emotion, certainly no tears. “It may not have sunk in yet, I don’t know. I mean, Greg Norman was my hero when I was a kid and I thought he was a great role model in how he handled himself in victory and defeat. It’s tough. I can’t justify anything that I’ve done out there.”
He couldn’t justify it, but he will have to live with it. This was sport at its most compelling and its most shattering; an unforgettable drama that will stay forever in the memory.