For three days last week, Almost nobody felt particularly lucky to be in New Jersey.
Lucky? The traffic getting into Baltusrol Golf Club to watch the first round of the U.S. Open turned nearby Route 78 into the world's biggest used-car lot. By noon that day and for the next three as well, all the parking spots near Baltusrol were gone. One entrepreneurial sort was charging people $12 to park on his street. Once inside the club, fans found pop and beer stands out of pop and beer by 5 p.m. This was not especially convenient considering that the temperature hit 102° on Saturday with suffocating humidity.
But then, on the fourth day, in a rented house near the club, a 28-year-old kid with a Wally Cleaver haircut woke up card-carrying lucky. In fact, he became the central clearinghouse for lucky. Clank a five-iron right through the branches of a tree without touching any of them? No problem. Chip in from a downhill lie out of rough you could lose your cat in? Easy. Slice your drive off an oak and watch it bounce back into the fairway? A cinch. Lucky Lee Janzen could have put a quarter in a pay phone and had it pay off 20 to 1. "Some days," said Janzen, holding the Open trophy with both hands, "you just feel destined."
Janzen not only won the first major of his life last week and saved a tournament in the same swoop, but he also tied Jack Nicklaus's record low of 272 for an Open, set at Baltusrol in 1980, and became the first man to shoot four rounds in the 60s at an Open since Lee Trevino did it 25 years ago. "I feel like the luckiest man alive right now," Janzen said.
It's a funny thing about destiny. The night before, it seemed that Janzen was destined to get a tag tied to his toe and have his body thrown in the big pile of Open unfortunates. He had a one-shot lead after Saturday's round, but the pleated pit bulls were at his heels: Tom Watson, Nick Price and Payne Stewart. Of the three, Stewart was the closest, at one shot back, and the hungriest. Seven times this year he had begun a Sunday within four shots of the lead, and all seven times he ended up shaking the winner's hand.
There are only so many hands you can shake with sincerity, and Stewart was determined to find his own greatness at Baltusrol. When he was victorious at Hazeltine in the 1991 Open, he resolved to make winning a habit. But a funny thing happened to Stewart on the way to becoming the next Watson. He didn't win again. Anywhere.
Still, you had the notion that Baltusrol belonged to Stewart. He was running out of ways to lose. Two weeks before, it had taken a miraculously holed bunker shot on 18 by his best friend, Paul Azinger, to beat him out of the Memorial championship. Stewart shook Azinger's hand bravely, then retired to the clubhouse, where he shoved peeled bananas into Azinger's loafers. Sweet revenge.
"If I win another Open, I'm going to enjoy it," Stewart said last Friday. He said it like someone who was going to enjoy it Sunday or die trying.
Janzen, meanwhile, was trying to find his nerve. The collywobbles were starting to annex his innards. Not only had he never contended in an Open before, he hadn't even made the cut in his three previous tries. Now, suddenly, he had owned the lead since Friday afternoon. That was when a 100,000-watt fan leaned over the rope and shouted to him, "Hey, Lee, you likin' Jersey?"
"Nice place to visit," Janzen said with a grin.
"Nice place to win," said the fan.
Actually, Janzen is something of a Jersey boy. He spent some of his Wonder Years in nearby Martinsville, until his family moved to Florida when he was 14. He took up golf in Florida only to get over his disappointment that the Little League season stopped in May. An odd reason, perhaps, but there are a lot of curious things about Janzen. He plumb-bobs shots with his driver and long irons as if they were putts. He endorses a nonalcoholic beer. (A nonalcoholic beer? In Jersey?) He has been tutored by former ABC sports correspondent Andrea Kirby in the fine art of being interviewed. He wears button-down golf shirts and has a button-down mind. He is a math whiz. He keeps a map of the course in his pocket and charts the wind direction on it. "I'll ask him, 'What do you think the wind is doing here?" says his Tour buddy Rocco Mediate. "And he'll say, 'Well, it was in our face on number 3, and now we've turned to the east, so it must be left to right.' And I always think, 'Why don't I do that?' "
But on Sunday, Janzen was in unmapped territory. "Last night he had two margaritas," said his five-months pregnant wife, Beverly.
Margaritas with alcohol.
By 11:30 Saturday night he was in bed and taking no more calls, which was too bad, because a very good one came.
"Who's this?" said the caller.
"Mendy," said Janzen's 19-year-old stepdaughter. "Who's this?"
"Charles Barkley," came the reply. "Will you tell Lee something for me? Tell him to kick butt tomorrow [Sunday] just like we're going to kick butt." Just a little neighborly encouragement; Janzen is building a house near Sir Charles's in Arizona's Paradise Valley.
As things started out, Janzen didn't look much like he was going to kick butt. He looked like he was going to revisit his lunch. Stewart was on him like static cling. By the start of the back nine all other contenders had fallen away, but Stewart was still within one shot. Janzen block-faded his drive halfway to Hoboken on the 10th. Between his ball and the green lay one of the oldest, fattest and fullest oaks in all of Baltusrol. Janzen hit a clunky five-iron much too low to make it over the old tree. The ball was headed straight into the oak and the land of 6s and 7s. Said Janzen later, "I'm thinking, Well, that's probably going to bounce deeper into the trees, and I'm going to make double bogey. Better bear down on these last eight holes."
But just then he heard a wonderful sound.
The ball flew through the tree's branches without so much as a bruised dimple and landed without incident on the green. "Huge break," said Janzen. Two-putt par.
Still, he three-putted the 12th to squander his lead. He and Stewart were tied. Janzen was being sucked under. "I was exhausted," he would admit afterward. He may have run out of petrol—but not luck. He drained a 25-foot no-brainer on the 14th to get back a one-shot lead and then came to 16, the hole of his life.
For once, Janzen hit a bad shot and it stayed bad. His tee shot on the 204-yard par-3 fell 30 feet short of the hole in the tall grass, leaving him a dangerous downhill pitch to the pin. A thousand yards away, the last guy to chip in from jail to nail down an Open was sitting in the press tent watching him on TV. Watson had chipped in on 17 at Pebble Beach in the 1982 Open to beat Nicklaus. Now it was Janzen's turn. He hit a chip that was as delicate as baby's breath. It rolled lovingly and gently into the cup. Remind you of anything, Tom? "Slightly," said Watson, who finished fifth on Sunday.
Stewart looked as though somebody had tried to cure his headache with a sledgehammer. Still, he collected himself. He rolled his 45-foot putt to within an inch of the hole, but the damage was done. Two-shot lead.
On to 17, where Janzen's guardian angels waited in the trees. Again, Janzen's drive went barreling right, into a tree, only this time the ball did hit a branch, which sent it flopping back into the fairway. "Another great break," said Janzen. He made par. In some circles that's a "barkie." The Lord be with you.
On to the uphill par-5 18th where, one more time, Janzen's drive sailed right, into the rough. "I was hoping we'd have a terrible lie," said Janzen's caddie, Dan Huber, curiously. "I didn't want him to try and hit it over the water no matter what." For a time Janzen fiddled with a seven-iron, hoping to hit out of the deep grass and over the creek that lay two thirds of the way down the par-5 hole. Finally, he asked for a sand wedge. "I knew if I hit it in the water, it would've been the dumbest decision in the history of golf," Janzen said afterward. Instead, he laid up with the sand wedge, leaving himself a tricky, 192-yard, uphill four-iron with a two-shot lead on the last hole to win the U.S. Open. Stewart was in front of the green in a bunker in two. He could still make eagle and easily make birdie. If Janzen mishit this shot, he had every chance of going home heartbroken.
He pushed it. Cue the angels, who saw to it that when the ball landed near the green, it kicked magically left, rolled over rough, clumps and froghair and ended up eight feet from paradise. Baltusrol roared. Stewart's head dropped, "I could've made that putt with my shoe," Janzen said with a sigh.
New Jersey. Nice place to win.
For Stewart it was another lesson in Good Losing (Advanced Placement). "I'll just keep knocking on the door," he said. "One of these days that door is going to be open, and I'm going to bust right through it." Stewart's problem may not be his shot selection so much as his shirt selection. No wonder he lost. On Sunday he wore a Buffalo Bills shirt.
When the Open trophy was at last in his hands, Janzen tried to speak but kept taking mulligans. "I hope I can say.... I was never...never sure I had it in me to do this...." Tears choked the rest of it away. There are some interviews even Andrea Kirby can't prepare you for.
Eventually, Janzen called it "the over-achievement of my life." But, actually, this is a kid who looks as though he might hold up. He is smart like Nicklaus, putts like Crenshaw and is gritty like, well, Watson. He needs to have a long talk with his driver (he hit only six fairways on Sunday, same as Stewart), but he reminds one less of a fake beer than the genuine draft. He has already won three times on the Tour, and he's the youngest Open champ in 15 years.
Outside the Baltusrol clubhouse Janzen was surrounded by a phalanx of 13 tall police officers and the hurly-burly of a U.S. Open victory. He was young, handsome and a newly crowned champion. The world was at his feet.
Inside, Stewart and third-place finisher Azinger were at Janzen's shoes. Kneeling over and giggling like fourth-graders, they were providing the only tribute that had not already been paid to him, the one gesture that could prove to Janzen that he had truly arrived.
Bananas in his loafers.