What an extraordinary Open Championship that was at Royal Troon. Henrik Stenson won the title by playing golf that was marginally more marvellous than Phil Mickelson’s, thereby winning his first major and denying Phil his sixth. As the great Jack Nicklaus put it: “Phil Mickelson played one of the best rounds I have ever seen played in the Open and Henrik Stenson just played better.” Indeed.
Unlike the Golden Bear’s, Mickelson’s glittering CV has an outstanding omission – he has never won the US Open, and at 46 he likely has not got many years left to rectify that. He won his one and only Open at Muirfield in 2013, and thoughts of Muirfield and Troon led me to consider the case of South African golfer Ernie Els, who is also 46 and whose most notable ‘accomplishment’ in a major this season perhaps was to take six putts on the first green of the Masters this past spring.
Els missed the cut at Troon ten days ago; the previous time the championship was there, in 2004, he had lost in a playoff to Todd Hamilton. But he has won the Open twice – Muirfield (2002) and Royal Lytham (2012 ) – as well as the US Open in 1994 and 1997. Four majors is impressive. It could have been many more.
Els, along with Mickelson, was the chief sufferer of the Tiger Woods era, when the latter dominated the game for a decade in a fashion which even Nicklaus never did. For example, Ernie was second in the first three majors of 2000, the latter two to Woods, although admittedly by a country mile. (It was 15 shots in the US Open at Pebble Beach; eight in the Open at St Andrews.) But in one major regard – and a very distinguished one – Els is right up with the giants of the game.
The Open Championships of Britain and the United States are the oldest golf tournaments open to professionals. Therefore, unlike the Masters (founded in 1934) and the USPGA (started in 1916 but never assuming any great status until the 1960s), it is possible to compare, to a point at least, the best golfers down the generations. Only ten golfers have won four or more of those two championships having won each of them at least once. (Which, for these purposes, excludes James Braid, J.H. Taylor and Peter Thomson, with five Opens apiece, and both Old and Young Tom Morris with four Opens each.) Ernie Els is among this group.
On seven are Harry Vardon (six Opens, one US Open); Bobby Jones (four US Opens and three Opens); and Jack Nicklaus (four US Opens, three Opens).
On six are Walter Hagen (four Opens, two US Opens); Tom Watson (five Opens, one US Open – another reason for him to regret what happened at Turnberry in 2009!); and Tiger Woods (three of each).
On five is Ben Hogan, with four US Opens and one Open, on the only occasion he entered it – in 1953.
On four are Gary Player (three Opens; one US Open); Lee Trevino (two of each); and Els.
So while things haven’t been so great on the course for him lately, Ernie has one heck of a place in the history books of the game.
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen