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  Sunday, 21 July, 2002, 22:25 GMT 23:25 UK
Els takes up Tiger challenge
So often a bridesmaid at Majors, Els was a worthy winner
BBC Sport Online's Matt Slater reports from Muirfield

Coming into the 2002 Open Championship the big story in golf was Jack Nicklaus' perceived criticism of the likes of Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.

The American golf legend had been quoted as saying Tiger Woods' rivals were not good enough to put the current world number one under the kind of pressure Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson had put him under.

Now, after four days of the most dramatic golf imaginable at Muirfield, Nicklaus has his answer.

Mickelson might still have his doubters, but Els has provided the most emphatic proof of his ability and nerve.

A first Open title is just reward for four days of sometimes excellent, always gutsy golf from the 32-year-old South African.

Two incredible sand saves - the first at the 13th hole and the second on the last play-off hole - stand out on Sunday, but it was heart-in-mouth stuff all the way.

While his eventful last day is freshest in the memory, the victory was built on solid foundations.

He had a stunning outward nine on Friday and a remarkable display of controlled play in Saturday's appalling conditions.

  Ernie Els
Born: 17/10/1969
Plays off scratch at age 14
Turned professional: 1989
Shoots four sub-70 rounds at The Open in 1993, at Sandwich, venue for 2003 Open
Major wins: 1994 and 1997 US Opens, 2002 Open championship
Woods factor: Finished second to the Tiger in 2000 US Open and Open Championship
Els excelled at football, cricket, rugby and tennis as a boy

Eight straight successful putts in that second round launched Els up the leaderboard, but it was his fortitude in the face of the worst that Muirfield could muster that kept him there.

Speaking after that third-round 72, Els said he rated it as highly as his 66 the day before. In truth, his 72 was the most significant round of the championship.

While Els battled to preserve his round, Woods, Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and a galaxy of other luminaries were going the wrong way.

That he was able to survive the storm that wrecked Woods' chances of winning the third leg of an unprecedented calendar year Grand Slam will be especially pleasing for Els.

He is too nice to enjoy another's misfortune, but he must have been getting fed up of finishing second to Woods.

Since winning the second of his two US Opens in 1997, Els has had to watch Tiger snag eight Majors in just five years.

Perhaps now the man from Johannesburg can finally start to achieve the things in the game his talent suggests is possible.

As Els admitted after his emotional sudden-death victory over Thomas Levet, "I didn't come here with a lot of confidence.

"But I'm going to leave as Open champion. It's been a journey for me this week."

When Els won his second US Open at Congressional in 1997, Curtis Strange heralded him as "a new golfing god".

Sadly, the god allowed Woods, and others, to steal his thunder. But he has got it back now.

"I'm back on track," a relieved Els announced on Sunday. "I can now legitimately try and win Majors, all four of them."

I think Nicklaus, golf fans around the world, and even Woods, finally have the challenger they have been so desperately waiting for.

BBC Sport Online's Open Golf Championship news section

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