LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Ernie Els plucked the ball from the hole after one last birdie and heaved it into the grandstand. At the time, it looked like nothing more than a classy gesture by a former British Open champion, not the next one.
The name on the claret jug was supposed to be Adam Scott, who had a four-shot lead with four holes to play.
But after one of the biggest meltdowns in majors history, Els returned to the 18th green less than an hour later to claim the oldest trophy in golf. With four bogeys over the last four holes, Scott joined a list of players who threw a major away.
"When you've been around as long as I have, you've seen a lot of things happen," said Els, 42 and a pro for 23 years, who ended up with a one-stroke win for his fourth major.
Scott might not get another chance like this to win a major.
After hitting a 3-wood into a pot bunker on the final hole, Scott stood over a 7-foot par putt with a chance to force a playoff. The ball stayed left of the cup, and Scott dropped into a crouch. Standing to the side, his chin quivered and he shook his head for a few seconds. He mouthed one word: "Wow."
"I know I let a really great chance slip through my fingers (Sunday)," Scott said.
Even though Els had gone more than two years without winning and had thrown away two tournaments in recent months with shaky putting, the "Big Easy" South African felt all along something special was going to happen at the Open.
It did. Just not the way he had imagined.
"I feel for Adam Scott; he's a great friend of mine," Els said.
On a wind-swept afternoon at Royal Lytham & St. Annes that blew away the hopes of Tiger Woods and a handful of others, Scott looked steady as ever by going eight straight holes, Nos. 7-14, without making bogey. That's when his round started coming undone.
"I had it in my hands with four to go," Scott said.
A bogey from the bunker on the 15th cut his lead to three. That was followed by a three-putt bogey on the 16th. From the middle of the 17th fairway, he hit a 6-iron that turned left, ran down the slope and took one last bounce in shin-high grass.
By then Els had posted his 2-under 68 with a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole. Scott failed to get up-and-down for par from the rough on 17 and suddenly was tied.
Els headed to the practice green, where it rarely works out for him. In perhaps the most crushing defeat in a career filled with them, Els was on the putting green at the Masters in 2004 when Phil Mickelson made an 18-foot birdie putt to win.
"I just thought, 'I'll probably be disappointed again,' " Els said. "You're not really hoping the guy is going to make a mistake, but you're hoping you don't have to go a playoff, you can win outright. This one was different, because I feel for Adam."
Els, who started the final round six shots behind, wound up with his second British Open — the other one was 10 years ago at Muirfield — with a final total of 7-under 273.
Scott's final round was 5-over 75. "I managed to hit a poor shot on each of the closing four holes," he said. "Look, I played so beautifully for most of the week. I shouldn't let this bring me down."
The wind finally arrived off the Irish Sea and ushered in chaos — a mental blunder by Woods that led to triple bogey on the sixth hole, a lost ball by Brandt Snedeker that took him out of contention and a topped shot that made McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, look like an amateur.
Woods had 73 to tie for third with Snedeker (74) at 3 under. It was his best finish in a major since he lost to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship. Woods is winless in his past 17 majors.
McDowell, playing with Scott and four back at the round's start, also had 75 to finish at 2 under. "I guess my disappointment kind of seems relatively stupid in relation," he said.