Nothing was more stunning than what happened to Scott, who closed with a 75.
"I managed to hit a poor shot on each of the closing four holes," Scott said. "Look, I played so beautifully for most of the week. I shouldn't let this bring me down."
Even so, it added another chapter to Australian heartbreak, most of that belonging to his idol, Greg Norman.
Scott was the fourth Australian since the 2007 Masters to lead going into the final round of a major, yet the proud land Down Under remains without a major since Geoff Ogilvy won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006.
"Greg was my hero when I was a kid, and I thought he was a great role model, how he handled himself in victory and defeat," Scott said. "He set a good example for us. It's tough. I can't justify anything that I've done out there. I didn't finish the tournament well today.
"But next time ... I'm sure there will be a next time and I can do a better job of it."
Already in the World Golf Hall of Fame, the 42-year-old Els joined even more elite company. He became only the sixth player to win the U.S. Open and British Open twice. The others are Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Lee Trevino.
Woods came undone on the sixth hole when he tried to blast out of a bunker from a plugged lie, stayed in the bunker, and three-putted for triple bogey. Still with an outside chance after a birdie on the 12th, he stuck with his conservative plan of hitting iron off the tee and made three straight bogeys. He closed with a 73 to tie for third with Brandt Snedeker, who also had his share of problems for a 74.
Woods had his best finish in a major since he lost to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship, though he remains winless in the last 17.
"It's part of golf," said Woods, who moves to No. 2 in the world. "We all go through these phases. Some people, it lasts entire careers. Others are a little bit shorter. Even the greatest players to ever play have all gone through little stretches like this."
Els finished at 7-under 273. He failed to qualify for the Masters this year for the first time in nearly two decades, but that won't be a problem now. His win gives him a five-year exemption into the majors.
It was the most shocking collapse at the British Open since Jean Van de Velde took a triple bogey on the final hole at Carnoustie and lost in a playoff. But this was different. It wasn't a last-minute blowup, more of a slow bleed, similar to Jason Dufner losing a five-shot lead to Keegan Bradley in the PGA Championship last year, or Ed Sneed making bogey on the last three holes at the 1979 Masters.
There was just enough wind to make the 206 bunkers at Royal Lytham look a little bit bigger. And as the gusts increased, a calm week turned chaotic.
It started with Woods on the sixth hole, his first triple bogey at a major championship since he lost his ball on the opening hole at Royal St. George's in 2003.
"One yard," he said to his caddie, a measure of the miss. It plugged near the steep wall of a pot bunker.
Instead of chipping to the middle of the bunker, Woods tried to get out with a ferocious swing. The ball smacked into the wall, nearly hit him and wound up near the left wall. He sat on the grass, his left knee (which has gone through four surgeries) flexed underneath him, his right leg extended as he dipped his upper body toward the sand to make a swing. This one also hit the wall, and caromed around and out to the right. From there, he three-putted for a 7.
"The game plan was to fire it into the bank, have it ricochet to the right and then have an angle to come back at it," Woods said. "Unfortunately, it ricocheted to the left and almost hit me."
Just like that, he was seven shots behind. It was the second time this year that one of golf's biggest stars made triple bogey in the final round of a major while in contention. Phil Mickelson made his on the fourth hole at the Masters and never recovered.