Evans relishing return to Muirfield
The record books will show that Ernie Els won the Open Championship the last time it was staged at Muirfield in 2002, beating Thomas Levet in sudden death after an initial four-man, four-hole play-off also involving Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby.
They will also reflect that England’s Gary Evans, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington and Japan’s Shigeki Maruyama finished just a shot outside the play-off.
But what they fail to capture is a sense of the drama of that final day 11 years ago, particularly for journeyman European Tour professional Evans as he came agonisingly close to a life-changing victory.
Evans began the final round six shots off the lead and was quickly further adrift after a bogey on the first, but then birdied six of the next seven holes.
“I remember a lot of nerves,” Evans told Press Association Sport ahead of his and the Open Championship’s return to Muirfield next week.
“Walking off the sixth tee I told my caddie ’I don’t know what’s going on here, don’t leave my side. Talk to me about anything other than golf,’ so we talked utter rubbish for the next two and a half hours.”
That unorthodox approach worked and Evans picked up shots on the 10th and 11th to be seven under for his round and six under for the tournament by the time he reached the fateful par-five 17th.
“I had 256 yards to the flag and a four-wood in my hand and although I hit it well, I was a bit short with my backswing and pushed it into the rough,” Evans added.
“My caddie was charging up there but I told him to slow down and took a slow walk to where Laura Davies (working as an on-course TV commentator) and 200 to 300 people were looking for the ball.
“I just remember finding five balls and the last one was a Titleist Pro v1 2, which was the make and number I was using, but it didn’t have my mark on it. Lifting the ball up, knowing it was the right make, and not finding the mark was one of the most disappointing moments of my life.
“That moment you think you’ve thrown away the chance to win the greatest tournament in the world but my caddie Dom (Dominic Bott) did a great job getting inside my head as we walked back to the exact spot where I had hit the ball from, getting me focused. This time I hit the perfect four wood onto the green about 50-60ft away.
“I could hear my heart going crazy and that was the first real moment where everything started shaking. I had the line and thought I could get it close, but when I put the putter down everything was shaking.
“The noise when it went in was just mental....from being nervous for two and a half hours to suddenly losing everything to being back in the game was too much to take. My brain was fried.”
In one of the defining moments of the week, Evans screamed “That’s for you Mum” into a nearby television camera as he celebrated the most unlikely of pars, but now needed to compose himself to play the 18th.
“I tried to think it all through and hit a 2-iron on 18 to take the bunkers out of play,” Evans recalled. “I missed the fairway right, got flying lie into the grandstands, took a free drop, hit a decent wedge that just rolled off edge of the green and in the end had an eight foot putt for bogey to win the Open.
“The others were nine or 10 holes and two or three shots behind so I thought I had it to win the Open. It was painful to watch the four guys beat me by a shot.
“It was an amazing experience no-one can take away from you, magical, heart-breaking, but I view it as a positive, not a negative.
“You think what could have been and how your life would have been different, but sometimes these things are not meant to be and my career has been littered with injuries and broken wrists and you just get on with it.”
After back and shoulder problems curtailed his 2005 season, Evans retired at the end of the following year, but he will be back at Muirfield next week on behalf of long-term sponsors Hugo Boss.
“I got into a dark place mentally off the course and didn’t want to do it any more,” he added. “It took me eight months after zipping up the bag in Majorca at the end of ’06 to open it again.
“But I’m looking forward to being back at Muirfield for a few days. I look back on it with fond memories.”