GULLANE, Scotland, July 21 (UPI) -- Ernie Els, who let the tournament slip through his fingers in regulation, finally ended the first four-man playoff in major championship history with a four-foot par putt on the first hole of sudden death Sunday to win the 131st British Open.
With an avowed goal of capturing the career Grand Slam, Els reached the halfway point in his quest by outlasting a wave of would-be winners on one of the more bizarre days in the history of golf's oldest tournament.
Els began the day with a two-shot lead and was still two shots in front as he stepped to the 14th tee, but he let the advantage get away. He wound up in a four-hole playoff with France's Thomas Levet and Australians Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington.
After those four holes, Els and Levet were the only ones remaining after playing them in even par. Levet had a chance to win on the fourth and final hole of the playoff, but drove into the rough at the 18th and wound up having to make a five-footer for bogey. Elkington and Appleby finished at 1-over after the four holes, leaving Els and Levet to take part in the first sudden death ever at the British Open.
They played the 18th hole as the first of sudden death and Levet, just as he did moments before, drove poorly. His tee shot wound up in a bunker left of the fairway, from where he could only advance the ball to within 130 yards of the green. His third shot wound up 30 feet from the hole.
Els, meanwhile, drove perfectly but then hit a 5-iron into the left greenside bunker. His explosion was almost perfect, trickling to within four feet of the hole. Levet, trying to become the second Frenchman to win this tournament and the first to do so in 95 years, charged his first putt six feet past the hole and then made the one coming back for bogey.
Els, then, had to make his four-footer to win and it was perfect.
"I don't know how I made that putt," said Els, a two-time runner-up at the British Open who earned $1.06 million Sunday. "I don't want to know how I made that putt.
"People have lost here and some people just never recover from it. I wouldn't say I would have been one of them if I didn't win today, but I would have really been a different person after this, maybe.
"This was one of the hardest tournaments I've ever played. The emotions I went through out there today, I've never been through anything like that. The older you get, the more emotions you feel.
"All week I felt like if I could just get past one, particular hole, I might be able to open a lead and maybe win it by four or five. But that's golf. I got lucky this time."
Els, ranked third in the world, added the British Open to his two U.S. Open titles won in 1994 and 1997.
He and the other participants in the playoff finished 72 holes at 6-under 278 for four rounds over the Muirfield links. Els closed with a 1-under 70 while Appleby fired a 65 and both Levet and Elkington had a 66.
Evans was 6-under for the tournament and had the lead with three holes to play only to go through a three-hole stretch right from the twilight zone. He made a huge par save at the 16th, lost a ball at the par-5 17th and still made a 40-footer for par and finally made bogey at the last after slashing the ball from rough to rough.
"It was a nightmare," Evans said. "I don't have words to describe it."
Back in a tie for 28th place at even-par 284 was Tiger Woods, who one day after shooting an 81 for his worst round as a professional managed a 65. Woods was trying to win his third straight major title, which would have put the single-season Grand Slam on the line next month in Minnesota at the PGA Championship.
One day after a powerful storm swept away the hopes of several contenders, including Woods, 36 players broke 70 on a beautiful afternoon Sunday.
Appleby birdied three of his last four holes to get into the playoff and if he could have parred the playoff's fourth hole, he would have been part of the sudden death duel.
But he hit a 5-iron from the middle of the fairway at the 18th hole into the bunker to the right of the green and hit a poor bunker shot to cost him. Elkington, too, would have been in the sudden death portion of the playoff if he could have made par at the 18th. But his second shot sailed over the green and he eventually missed an eight-foot par effort.
The four-hole playoff was a controversial one in that tournament officials decided to send the four players out in twosomes rather than have them all play in the same group.
Levet, paired with Elkington in the first twosome, holed a 60-foot birdie putt at the par-3 16th (the second hole of the playoff) to take command. But he struggled from there. His second shot from the middle of the fairway at the par-5 17th wound up in a bunker short of the green and he had to make a five-footer just to save par.
Then he bogeyed the 18th as well after what appeared to be an ill-advised decision to use a driver off the tee.
That drew comparisons with the actions of countryman Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open, when he threw away a three-shot lead on the final hole at Carnoustie --- his troubles beginning when he used a driver off the tee instead of playing it safe.
In regulation play, Els saw his lead cut to one shot when he bogeyed the par-4 14th. He then missed the green at the par-3 16th, chipped all the way off the front of the putting surface, ran his third shot six feet past the cup and missed that one.
Suddenly, he was a shot out of the lead. But he made a birdie at the 17th to draw even and earn his way into the playoff.
"After signing my scorecard after the 72nd hole, thank goodness I had some time because I could compose myself a little bit for the playoff," Els said.
Levet was the surprise member of the playoff, entering the week ranked 134th in the world.
"Hopefully, I can take this and go forward," said Levet, who has won twice in five years on the European Tour. "I'll be eligible for some more tournaments, like the U.S. PGA."
It could have been a special day for Appleby, whose wife, Renay, was hit by a car and killed in London after he missed the cut at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale. He settled for his best finish in 21 major appearances.
"If someone had told me at the start of the week where I'd finish, I'd been happy with that," said Appleby, who has three titles since joining the PGA Tour in 1996.
Elkington, ranked 115th in the world before the tournament, was seeking his second major victory, having won the 1995 PGA Championship. He had not finished better than 60th at the Open since 1995.