GULLANE, Scotland -- Relief washed over Ernie Els as he cradled the silver claret jug after winning the British Open in a battle that could have ruined him.
He didn't beat Tiger Woods at Muirfield. It only felt that way.
''I'm back on track,'' Els said. ''I can now legitimately try to win the majors.''
After four years of marveling at Woods' skills and questioning his own, Els showed he has the mettle to do just that.
The Big Easy made it hard on himself Sunday by squandering a three-stroke lead on the back nine, by taking a double bogey when the trophy was in his grasp, by making the kind of history he could have done without.
In the first four-man playoff in British Open history, and the first one that required more than four holes of stroke play, Els outlasted Thomas Levet of France with a signature bunker shot to save par on the first sudden-death hole.
''I didn't come here with a lot of confidence,'' Els said. ''I'm going to leave here as the Open champion. It's been a little journey for me this week.''
He had just enough strength left to throw his arms in the air and his hat into the fading sunlight of a Scottish sky after his 5-foot par putt curled in the right side of the cup.
''It was truly hard work, but nobody said it was going to be easy,'' Els said.
It proved to be far more difficult for Woods, who was trying to win the third leg of the Grand Slam but shot himself out of the tournament with an 81 in the third round, his worst score as a professional.
He left town on a much better note: seven birdies for a 65, matching the best score of a sunny, almost balmy, day in Scotland. Woods finished at even-par 284, tied for 28th.
Els was in despair after a double bogey on the 16th hole, which put him one stroke behind with two holes to play. Somehow, he pulled himself back together.
He finished birdie-par to get into the playoff, and had enough time to eat a sandwich and consult with his psychologist, Jos Vanstiphout.
Els made all pars in the four holes of overtime to force sudden death with Levet.
Then came the most amazing par of all.
With his right foot anchored on the top of a bunker left of the 18th green, Els dug in and blasted out to 5 feet.
Els was utterly exhausted and exceedingly pleased.
''I guess I've got a little fight in me when it counts,'' Els said. ''It would have been a very hard loss if I didn't win this jug.''
No other trophy has ever meant so much.
Els honed his game on European tour soil and was destined for greatness until Woods came along and started collecting majors at a frightening rate. Els has been runner-up to him twice in the majors, six times overall.
He won the British Open the same way he won his two U.S. Open titles -- with grit and determination, unfazed even when it looked as though he had wasted his chances.
''This was one of the hardest tournaments I've ever played,'' Els said. ''The emotions I went through today -- I don't think I've ever been through that.''
It was the third major championship for the 32-year-old Els, his first since the U.S. Open at Congressional five years ago.
None of three was easy, but this one tops the list.
Ahead by as many as three shots on the back nine, his lead was down to one when Els took double bogey on the par-3 16th.
Els had no room for error, and didn't make any.
He finished birdie-par for a 1-under 70 to join Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington at 6-under 278.
The largest British Open playoff before Sunday involved three players in 1999 at Carnoustie and in 1989 at Royal Troon. The lowest score over four holes is the winner.
Levet struck first, making a 50-foot birdie putt on the second hole in the playoff (No. 16).
It was about the same distance as his eagle putt on the 71st hole that enabled him to shoot 66 and get into overtime.
But the Frenchman started to feel the pressure, and he was lucky to escape the final two playoff holes with a par and a bogey.
Appleby, who birdied three of the last four holes for a 65 to make the playoff, hit his approach into the right bunker, couldn't get on the green and made bogey to finish 1 over.
Elkington, the '95 PGA champion who closed with a 66, missed a 6-foot par putt on No. 18 and also dropped out at 1 over.
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