Scott’s Open loss was a brutal capitulation played out in frozen moments of horror
The silence grew at the back of the 17th. The air felt like the vacuum of space, thumb and no noise could permeate it. We knew what was unfolding before us; we knew what we were about to see.
Adam Scott’s Open was about to tumble into black nothingness. The silence that greeted this realisation was eerie, in its own way quite stunning.
Around 15 minutes earlier, Scott was the coolest presence on these breezy West Coast links. He was winning The Open at a trot, without pressure, without the hint of a glitch or a stutter. His rivals could not touch him, the numbers all added up to a single outcome. He was golf’s Bradley Wiggins, confirming the inevitable, freewheeling over the line. The final holes were his Champs-Elysees, lined with well-wishers there to witness and celebrate the passing parade.
What followed were frozen moments of horror. Benign putts inexplicably gone astray, hideous tangles of long grass, barren wastelands of bunkers. And a cheer. A cheer that said, elsewhere, a parallel universe was forming. One in which Ernie Els could do no wrong, full of optimism and possibility, birdies, long, straight drives and joyful noise.
The contrast as Scott left the 17th to the sound of his own heartbeat could not have been clearer. By then, there was an awful inevitability about events on the final hole. Scott missed the fairway, naturally, found a bunker, obviously, and although he recovered to stand over a 10-foot putt to take the 2012 Open Championship to a four-hole play-off, his miss was as predictable as the anguished expression it inspired.
Bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey. We are used to the extreme mental pressures of major tournament golf wreaking devastation but few collapses have been as dramatic and gut-wrenching as this. Rory McIlroy at the US Masters in 2011, Jean van de Velde at Carnoustie in 1999, the three-foot putt that cost Doug Sanders the 1970 Open.
Yet somehow this seemed the most brutal capitulation of all. It is fair to say Scott had been under no real strain all afternoon. His expected starry challengers, Tiger Woods and Graeme McDowell, could not get going, Brandt Snedeker had posted back-to-back double bogeys on the front nine.
If Scott was going to be squeezed it needed greater consistency than could be found anywhere around Royal Lytham & St Annes. Even dear old Ernie was considered to have left it late. He was four shots behind Scott with five holes to play. He was playing a solid round, more consistent than anyone expected; but he was going to come up short.
This is how suddenly Scott imploded. At the back of the 16th green, I stood with some course marshals as he approached. We agreed that it had been a disappointing afternoon for the tournament; that the leader had not been threatened; that he had been given the luxury of winning without complication.
Scott, it was decided, could play to the heart of the fairway, then the heart of the green, without needing to take a chance. He did not have to challenge the pin, he did not have to take a driver. He could ease up on the fairway, trundle one up on the green. Few would ever win a major in such comfort.
And, within one hole of that conversation, he was leaving the 17th, haunted.
At his post-match interview, Scott was a man in shock. Not that he was tearful or trembling, for those would have been understandably human emotions. Conversely, he was rational, composed, philosophical, charming. It made no sense.
‘This may not have sunk in yet,’ he admitted and, plainly, it had not. There will be a fearful reckoning come the morning when he realises that he is not, after all, the Open champion.
He would have spent so long yesterday in a mood of expectancy that the reality was perhaps too fresh to register. He seemed to spend a minute or more staring at the scorecard on the desk in front of him, as if trying to make sense of the numbers. His read like a countdown at Cape Kennedy: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, falling hole by hole as he came up the home stretch.
Scott knew what had gone wrong and where it had gone wrong, but seemed unable to compute just what this colossal wrongness meant for him. He even answered cheerfully questions from a local newspaper about his Lancastrian ancestry, without screaming at the banality of it all. He seems a nice guy and it is probably as well.
‘Those three bogeys didn’t help you at all,’ said the BBC’s post-match interviewer, a statement of such startling foolishness that it is lucky Scott did not have that over-large putter to hand. One can imagine Tiger Woods’s answer in similar circumstances or how the BBC would have handled major events in history.
‘So, captain of the Titanic, that iceberg really didn’t help you at all.’
‘So, Marie Antoinette, that revolution must have come as a bit of a blow.’
Scott’s insistence that nerves did not get the better of him seemed an act of denial, but he was more convincing when pinpointing the shot that defined his collapse. A 176-yard six-iron to the 17th green was the moment that turned drama into crisis after some poor putting on the previous holes. Missing the green left, the Australian trooped into long grass as the cheers for Els’s birdie on the 18th echoed across the links. It was a vicious juxtaposition.
‘Looking back, it all comes down to the shot into 17,’ Scott said. ‘That’s the one I’m most disappointed with because at that point I’m still well in control of the tournament. If I hit a nice shot somewhere to the right of the hole, I could go into the last with the lead.
‘I hit a really nice tee shot off 17 and then I just turned it over. It wasn’t a good shot. So that was pretty disappointing for me really.’
It was all so sweetly understated. Today will be different. Decades later, Sanders was asked if he ever still thought about the putt that cost him the 1970 Open.
‘Not really, buddy,’ he replied. ‘Sometimes I go a whole 10 minutes without thinking about it.’