Hamilton withstands Els, playoff for Open win

Updated: July 21, 2004, 4:32 PM ET
Associated Press

TROON, Scotland -- After a hard-fought final round at Royal Troon and four extra holes Sunday against Ernie Els, 38-year-old American Todd Hamilton won the claret jug and was introduced as the champion golfer of the year, at least so far as the British are concerned.

Hamilton made four pars in the playoff, the last one the toughest of all. From 40 yards short of the cup, he used a utility club to bump the ball along the crusty grass to within 2 feet of the cup. Els had one last chance, but missed a 15-foot birdie putt.

Hamilton knocked in the final putt, started to retrieve it from the hole, then realized what he had just done. He let out a whoop, raised his arms in the air and hugged his caddie, Ron Levin.

For the second year in a row, the silver jug went to a player no one could have imagined at the start of the week. But unlike Ben Curtis, who was ranked 396th when he won at Royal St. George's in his first major, no one will ever call Hamilton a fluke.

Not after he beat back a leaderboard loaded with majors champions.

Not after he refused to get flustered when Phil Mickelson took the lead with eight holes to play.

And certainly not after going toe-to-toe with Els in a pressure-packed playoff.

"It was truly a blast," Hamilton said.

Hamilton, an 11-time winner on the Japanese tour, thought he had hit the big time when he birdied the final two holes for a one-shot victory over Davis Love III at the Honda Classic in March.

Now, his name is on the oldest trophy in golf, alongside names like Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Hamilton was fighting back tears as he prepared to hoist the jug.

"We've got a great champion," said Els, who had a chance to win in regulation until missing a 12-foot birdie putt that sent the British Open into its fifth playoff in the last 10 years.

For Els, it was another major setback.

He had one arm in the green jacket until Mickelson made an 18-foot birdie on the final hole to beat him by one shot at the Masters. Els played in the final group at the U.S. Open, two shots out of the lead, and shot 80.

Els had to make 10-footers for birdie on the 16th and 17th holes Sunday to keep his hopes alive at Royal Troon. And when Hamilton bogeyed the 18th hole in regulation, the Big Easy had a 12-foot putt for the win.

But he left it short, and his putter let him down in the playoff. He missed a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 1, and fell behind when he overshot the third extra hole, the par-3 17th, and missed a 10-footer for par.

Hamilton made sure he never caught up.

"Coming so close obviously is disappointing," Els said. "To get into the playoff from where I was, you've got to take the positive."

Els shot 68 in the final round and earned a dubious distinction. He had all four rounds in the 60s for the second time in a British Open without winning; the other time was at Royal St. George's in 1993.

Hamilton closed with a 2-under 69 to become the sixth consecutive American to win the Open at Royal Troon.

They finished at 10-under 274, one shot ahead of Mickelson.

Hamilton, who finally got his PGA Tour card in December, earned about $1.35 million and is exempt for the next five years in the three U.S. majors and the PGA Tour. He can play the British Open until he's 65.

"I've won tournaments around the world before, but nothing on a stage like this," Hamilton said. "So to be Open champion is very special."

Mickelson looked like a winner when he saved par with an 18-foot putt at No. 9 and a 15-footer at No. 10, putting him in the outright lead for the first time. But he missed a 4-foot par putt on the 13th hole, ending his streak of 49 consecutive holes without a bogey at Royal Troon.

Ultimately, it cost him a chance to win his second major.

Despite a birdie on the par-5 16th, Mickelson didn't give himself a good look at birdie on the final hole and had to settle for third place. He had never finished in the top 10 at a British Open, and now has gone 1-2-3 in the majors this year.

"The guys behind me were making the birdies, and I wasn't," Mickelson said. "I was just playing for pars and thought shooting even par was going to be good enough."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press