At 32 Adam Scott could not see a way to lose. Ernie Els, 10 years his senior, had essentially forgotten how it was to win. But then, for sweet and savage beauty – if you happened to be the man they still call The Big Easy – this was something guaranteed to take you back to the days when there was every reason to believe anything was possible.
Els won his last major in the wildest of Scottish weather at Muirfield 10 years ago. In the 1990s he twice won the US Open. He had a swing that made aficionados of the game swoon, and he never lost that capacity to delight a purist. What did disappear, though, until the drama of this extraordinary dusk, was belief in his own powers to shape a major tournament – and the most crucial matter of the putting stroke.
Once again it appeared to be a fatal career development as the younger man from Adelaide, in search of his first major, went into the back nine four shots ahead of his nearest rival, playing partner and former US champion Graeme McDowell, and six ahead of Els.
There could only be only one result, it had to be concluded on the ebb tide of this 141st Open which for so long seemed to be refusing to happen as one of golf's most compelling and tumultuous events. Even the forecast wind refused to hint that it might become the tempest Els believed could bring his only chance of ending the barren years.
Yet as Els sighed just a little at his dwindling hopes of translating a last round of mostly impressive application – and some superior putting that gave him a final round of two under par – the convulsion came. It consumed Scott, it left him so hollowed out that on the final hole he simply kneeled and shook his head.
His denouement was one of the most shocking in the history of major tournament golf.
While Els preserved his prospects with a nerveless 15ft birdie on the 18th hole, Scott was in the last throes of what amounted to a piece of sustained and quite appalling self-destruction. He bogeyed the last four holes. It was a disintegration which surely had the more sensitive observers shielding their eyes.
McDowell, who had the close-up view of this living nightmare, said: "This was the return of one of golf's great champions. It was a highlight for a classy, classy golfer. He's had three or four very indifferent years."
It was a statement that wiped away much pain and disillusionment, with not the least of it coming when Phil Mickelson swept away his chances of a GreenJacket at Augusta with a magnificent putt on the last green. At the time Els was munching an apple on the practice green, steeling his nerve for a likely play-off.
Last night he was having another snack when Scott's eight-foot putt at 18 failed to stem the tide of bogeys.
Els is one of golf's largest and most amiable men and it was typical of him that his first victory statement should stress the depth of his feelings for the beaten man. Scott handled himself with much dignity in the face of such wretched disaster, recalled his mortification when his countryman and idol Greg Norman withered under the pressure exerted by Nick Faldo in Augusta in 1996, and reported that he had not yet allowed himself to cry. But it was, he allowed, a distinct possibility at some point of a long and surely deeply reflective night.
If he was to find any kind of comfort it was probably in the sepia records of the 1966 US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Then, the great Arnold Palmer carried a seven-shot lead into the last nine and retained it at five shots with three holes to play. But Billy Casper kept on his heels, draining the life and the confidence out of the founder of modern golf and finally prevailed in a play-off. That seemed to be the apex of Els' hopes before Scott found a bunker on the last fairway before misfiring his putt.
For Els this last represented more than a stunning and unexpected triumph. It was the time when he could walk away from the dread of believing that whatever he attempted to achieve, he was destined to fail – however sweet the swing, and however well he utilised the now controversial long-handled putters. The trouble was, he has been candid enough to confess, that he reached a point when he no longer assumed that he had the game and the competitive character to face any challenge that came on the golf course.
That slippage of confidence, ironically enough, was most significantly imposed by the man who last night was singularly unable to inflict himself on the unfolding drama. Tiger Woods first did it in the 2002 US Masters, when he swept to his third – and second straight – Green Jacket with an imperious march around Amen Corner.
Els admitted he was one of the prime victims. "You have to believe you can win in any circumstances, you have the ability to inflict yourself on any situation. But I have to be honest. Tiger took a lot of that belief away when he went storming to another US Masters title. It was one I wanted to win very badly – and up until that point I believed I could win it."
That was a returning belief, however, before Mickelson destroyed his play-off chances. Last night it was as though he had emerged from a rather dark stand of Georgian pines. Ironically, this time it was the Tiger who had a need to hug the shadows.
Once again Woods, who had had moments of impressive skill and judgement over the first two days, failed to inflict himself at the decisive stage of a major tournament. The four-year drought was extended, there could be little doubt, in his own mind when on Saturday he failed quite profoundly to match the momentum of Scott, the man with the broom-handled putter and the zealous support of Tiger's former caddie Steve Williams.
While Scott played with freedom – and some refined aggression – the Tiger repeatedly took the cautious option, which meant that when the Australian finally began to falter over the last nine yesterday, Woods was too far behind – too preoccupied with avoiding the breakdown of his game to spread any of the old destructive influence.
For Woods, who shot a last round of three over, it was the harshest evidence that his game remains a long way from the brutal force it was before his fall from grace two and a half years ago. For Scott it was an extremely long and tortuous journey to a place against which he will need some considerable protection over the next few weeks and months.
And for The Big Easy? As his huge smile illuminated the gathering shadows, it was easy to believe he had returned, if not to the best of his days, certainly to the kind on which he could still believe that, indeed, just about anything can happen.
Shot, shank and mover of the day
Shot of the day: Even 14-time major winners have to get down and dirty sometimes. Tiger Woods got on to all fours to escape a bunker at the sixth, en route to his first triple-bogey at a major in nine years.
Shank of the day: Graeme McDowell, still stuck on one major win, fell out on contention on the 11th hole, duck-hooking a fairway wood into gorse from the middle of fairway.
Charge of the day: World No 36 Nicolas Colsaerts shrugged off poor middle rounds to surge into a top-10 finish. The Belgian's final round 65 helped him achieve his best finish at a major.