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Golf leaves a trail of broken hearts

Sometimes I wonder what it is I like about golf.

Any game that can tease a person the way it teased Adam Scott for 68 holes, then shove a sand wedge down his throat and pull his guts out like it did Sunday at the bittersweet end of the British Open Championship has some serious personality flaws.

You don’t have to have played golf to know that it’s a game built on failure. It’s a wonder anyone ever sticks with it since it slaps everyone and, except for the smart ones, they keep coming back for more.

As Jack Nicklaus once said, it’s a game that if you win 20 percent of the time you’re a legend.

Under almost any other circumstance, Ernie Els’ improbable victory Sunday at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in England would be golf’s feel-good story of the summer. For all of Els’ trophies and championships, he’s absorbed enough hard shots that he should be allowed to wear headgear like boxers do when they’re sparring.

He finished second in three straight majors to Tiger Woods, who probably still haunts his sleep. He was on the putting green at Augusta in 2004 after shooting 31 on the back nine on Sunday, prepping for a playoff when Phil Mickelson jumped into his nightmares. Todd Hamilton of all people beat Els one year at the British Open.

This one feels like the exclamation point on Els’ already Hall of Fame career, and good for him. Four majors is rare air.

It will feel richer as time goes by, the way Els shot 68 on a rugged Sunday with a storybook birdie at the closing hole. Surrounded by massive bleachers filled with fans expecting to eventually salute Scott, the roar when Els made his final birdie must have sounded like an angels’ choir to him. For Els, a putter has felt like a rattlesnake in his hands for a while now.

On most Sundays, in most tournaments, it wouldn’t have been enough.

Adam Scott - with his impossibly good looks, his own Gulfstream jet and a golf swing shaped by the gods and former coach Butch Harmon - probably would have closed this one out had it not been the Open Championship and a man waiting in the clubhouse to etch Scott’s name into the silver Claret Jug.

Scott will spend a lifetime replaying the mistakes he made over the last four holes - the short miss at 16, the tugged approach at 17 and the missed putt that completed his heartbreak at 18 . He did everything right for 68 holes and just enough wrong at the end to ruin a seemingly charmed week.

It was hard to watch.

If you watched and cared just a little bit, you know.

You probably went looking for Maalox when it ended, not because Els won but because of the way Scott lost.

Did he choke?

Sure, he did. He bogeyed the last four holes of a major championship to lose a four-stroke lead and the trophy. It wasn’t a grand collapse like Jean Van de Velde in the British Open in 1999, but Scott let bogeys bleed him to death.

One par and it might all be different. How many players have been forced to live with that as they’ve grown older?

Now it’s Scott’s turn.

Major championship history is cluttered with collapses. Just last month at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, we were remembering the seven-shot lead Arnold Palmer lost on the back nine in the 1966 U.S. Open. Greg Norman tossed away a six-stroke lead on Sunday in the 1996 Masters. Just over a year ago, Rory McIlroy took a four-stroke lead into the final round at the Masters and shot 81.

You want heartless? Golf owns the trademark.

After Scott’s last chance died with a putt that skidded past the left side of the hole at No. 18 Sunday, Els wasn’t quite sure how to react to having won a tournament he never led until the last moment.

Scott, meanwhile, glanced back down the 18th fairway, likely wondering how the biggest victory of his career had disappeared like a ghost.

He’ll have a lifetime to think about it.

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