Literally so. By 2 p.m. the cloud was enormous, and with it came 30-mph winds, a 40� windchill and—at almost precisely the moment Tiger teed off, at 2:30—a needlelike rain that fell sideways. It was, for the next four hours, like walking into a sneeze. Gales ravaged umbrellas and scorecards alike. Thomas Bj�rn, who hit driver-one-iron to the green on the 560-yard, par-5 5th hole on Friday, hit driver, one-iron and one-iron again to reach it on Saturday. "I was just hoping to get in alive," said Ian Garbutt of England. Said Ireland's Des Smyth, "It was basically survival out there." Added Price, "It's the worst I've seen since '75...." These men sounded less like golfers returning to the clubhouse than harrowed sailors returning to port.
From his first shot, which fell in knee-high fescue, Woods cut a Kilroy-like figure on Saturday, often visible only from the chest up. When he wasn't obscured by high rough, he was in Muirfield's bunkers, many of which resemble open manholes. Woods had a 42 at the turn and looked tortured, King Lear with an L-wedge, until he finally holed a birdie putt on 17, removed his cap and bowed theatrically to the gallery. He was, at once, thoroughly defeated by his 81 and entirely resigned to this, his worst round as a professional. Afterward—even more than in victory—he was gracious, humble and immediately well-adjusted. "I tried all the way around," he said. "I don't bag it. I tried on each and every shot, and that's the best I could have shot. I tried. And unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be." With that, for all practical purposes, Elvis had left the building.
"Seeing it happen to the best player in the world, possibly the best ever to play the game, shows that anyone can look silly out there," said Scott McCarron, who likened weather conditions at this Brutish Open to those at the San Francisco City Championship.
While finishing second in 19 majors, Jack Nicklaus became golf's most graceful loser. Woods showed the same equanimity at Muirfield, where Nicklaus's Slam died in 1972. "Sometimes," said Woods, "the media and everybody tend to lose perspective on how difficult it is to win a major."
Indeed, the course had proved not only Tiger-proofed but also Scotch-guarded: Colin Montgomerie—who shot a 64 on Friday to put himself in contention—followed up with an 84 on Saturday, tying the record for greatest stroke differential in consecutive rounds at the Open. Monty, the most talented player save Phil Mickelson never to have won a major, would shoot 75 on Sunday and look inconsolable, like one of the ghosts Els was determined not to become. "I'm very, very disappointed," Montgomerie said of (and to) the British reporters fond of lampooning him. "I'm really hurt by [the abuse]. Really hurt." He said he was pulling out of his next two tournaments because "I can't handle it anymore."
For everyone but Monty, Sunday was gorgeous; white-chalk clouds in a baby-blue sky. "A day like this is absolute heaven," said Price, though Woods—following his 65—expressed his desire to get home to Orlando and put on shorts. On this Sunday it was Els who wore red, and he felt the charge of oncoming bulls. Still, Els had that one-stroke lead going into the 186-yard 16th, having only to land a seven-iron on the green. He did, but the ball rolled off the left side and down a steep embankment. He then thinned a 60-degree wedge to the front of the green and off, into a small valley. His next chip ran 10 feet past the pin, and Els missed the putt on his way to double bogey and, for all he knew, oblivion. "I would have been a different person," Els said later, "if I didn't recover."
So he pulled out driver on the 546-yard, par-5 17th and hit it 306 to a fairway the width of a produce aisle. Els made birdie (and very nearly eagle), parred the 449-yard, par-4 18th and found himself in a four-way playoff with Australia's Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby and Thomas Levet of France. Before the four-hole, two-ball format began, Els ate a sandwich, reflecting that a Sandwich—the site of the 2003 Open—would eat him next year, and perhaps forever after, if he blew this major. Did he think that losing on Sunday would have consigned him to an Open-less future? Said Els, in his South African accent, "Yis."
Those who have never contended on a Sunday evening for a major championship cannot conceive of the attendant anxiety. "It is so difficult to hold it together," said Evans, who missed the playoff by a stroke. "I mean, these top guys...how these guys hit these shots, I don't know. It's a different world to me." Without the brother from another planet—Woods—in the picture, the claret jug was anyone's. Els has won two U.S. Opens, but the last was five years ago. "I still play like a man with a lot of talent who can win," said Els. "But I also play pretty poorly now and then."
His future at stake—"I'm pretty hard on myself," said Els—he played the four-hole playoff at even par. Trouble was, so did Levet, forcing a sudden-death playoff on 18. There, heads kept popping in and out of blank squares on the big yellow scoreboard. It looked like a human glockenspiel.
Seagulls keening overhead, Els hit his two-iron to the center of the fairway, while Levet hit driver, as he had all day on 18, and found a fairway bunker. The Frenchman got on in three, 40 feet away. Els's second shot fell in the back of a greenside bunker, giving him an extraordinarily awkward stance: He had one foot in and one foot out, was half in sun and half in shadow, an apt position for a man whose golfing future was—at this very instant—at a fork in the road. Els swung his wedge. The ball alighted, like a butterfly, five feet from the pin.