By diabolical design the U.S. Open is lost with bogeys far more
often than it is won with birdies. In golf's annual homage to
par, victory usually comes down to a knack for holding on. So
perhaps it was no coincidence that on Sunday, on a thumb-breaker
of a course, the strongest grip on glory was applied by the
desperately conceived reverse overlap of Steve Jones.
The remarkable winner, who clawed his way to a two-under-par
278, was one of 10 players who were at even par or better at
some point during the final round. And like the rest of that
group, Jones lost at least one stroke to par coming down the
stretch. The fearsome finishing holes at suburban Detroit's
Oakland Hills Country Club put every contender into reverse,
from big names such as Norman, Els and Montgomerie to smaller
ones like Austin, Furyk, Morse and Nobilo. Still, when it comes
to what might have been, the 96th Open will be remembered for
the two players whose fingers were pried off the prize last--Tom
Lehman and Davis Love III.
Lehman and Love came to Oakland Hills with similar credentials.
Although Love, 32, is five years younger than Lehman and has
eight more victories, with 10, both are highly respected power
players who have proved their mettle in the Ryder Cup. In the
Sony World Ranking, Lehman is 13th and Love 16th. Each has now
come close to winning three major championships, including last
year's Open at Shinnecock Hills, and both are candidates for the
most despised label in the professional game--Best Player Never
to Have Won a Major. The USGA must have seen the connection,
because it paired them in the first two rounds at Oakland Hills.
Lehman and Love now have one more thing in common: anguish. With
golden opportunities to win that coveted first major, both
bogeyed the 72nd hole to finish a stroke behind Jones.
June 23, 1996
Love's disaster was the more horrifying. On Sunday, despite
hitting only four fairways through 16 holes, he had worked his
way to three under par for his round and into a tie with Jones
at three under for the championship. But on the 200-yard, par-3
17th, Love blocked his five-iron tee shot to the wrong side of a
severe hogback on the green and, after a difficult lob shot,
missed a 20-footer for par. Playing in the penultimate
twosome, Love dropped to two under, one behind Jones and into a
tie with Lehman. Gathering himself on the 465-yard, par-4 18th,
the toughest finishing hole in major championship golf, Love,
using a three-wood, drove into light rough and followed with a
near perfect six-iron that left his ball 20 feet above the hole.
Believing the putt to be "screaming fast," Love nudged the ball
forward only to watch it die three feet short. As he prepared to
stroke the crucial par-saver, he suddenly bent over to wave away
tiny flies that were buzzing around the hole. The tension became
too much in the locker room, where several players were rooting
for Love. "Please, Davis, hit it; it's reminding me of Doug
Sanders," pleaded Peter Jacobsen, recalling the 1970 British
Open, in which Sanders missed a three-footer-to-win on the final
hole after nervously bending over to clear some debris from his
Sure enough, Love's putt grazed the left edge of the cup, having
been hit either too softly or with not enough borrow. Because he
missed from short range on the final hole to lose by one, Love's
heroics in the 1993 Ryder Cup, in which he made a
pressure-packed six-footer on the final hole to assure a U.S.
victory, will be forgotten. Instead, he will be lumped with
three other players who suffered similar fates in the Open--Sam
Snead (1947), Ben Hogan (1956) and Bob Rosburg (1969).
"I guess I'll be explaining those putts for a long time," a
composed Love said afterward. "I was extremely, extremely
nervous, but I approached both of them feeling I was going to
make them. The thing that surprised me about the first one was
that I could actually hit it too easy. The next one was a hard
putt, and I did a good job of staying in my routine. The flies
got in my line, but I didn't rush right up and hit it after
stepping away. I just didn't execute it very well."
Lehman's loss might be harder to take because he did execute,
only to be undone by an unlucky bounce. On the strength of a
course-record-tying 65 on Saturday, Lehman started the day with
a one-shot lead at two under, and he briefly extended the spread
to three strokes when he birdied the 7th hole to go four under.
But he bogeyed the 10th after a poor tee shot, and on the par-5
12th, the second-easiest hole on the course, Lehman's second
shot, a perfectly struck driver from 275 yards, ran over the
green to the back of a steep bunker. Forced to play out away
from the pin, Lehman left himself 50 feet from the hole. He
three-putted for a cruel bogey that dropped him to two under and
a stroke behind Jones. "The 12th hole is what stuck me pretty
good," Lehman said. "It was the turning point. It's one thing to
hit a skanky shot and make a bogey. It's another to hit two
pure drivers on a par-5 and walk away with a 6."
Lehman was further abused when he lipped out a good-looking
20-footer for birdie at the par-4 16th, a putt that was
reminiscent of his missed eagle attempt on the 15th at Augusta
in 1994, when he came in second to Jose Maria Olazabal in the
Masters. And then at the 17th, Lehman's six-iron tee shot landed
20 feet in front of the hole but bounced over the green and into
Still, he saved par, and after Jones bogeyed the hole, the two
of them came to 18 tied. There, Lehman chose to ignore his
caddie, Andy Martinez, who advised a three-wood off the tee.
Instead, Lehman pulled out a driver. Normally he draws the ball,
but here he planned to shape his shot from left to right, as the
route of the fairway dictated. "The driver just felt perfect in
my hands, and I've learned to trust my ability to hit the slider
even though it's not my primary shot," he said later. "I thought
the play was to take a chance, bomb it over the corner, hit
seven- or eight-iron on the green and try to make a birdie and
win the Open."
Lehman hit a bomb, but a slight tailwind seemed to keep the ball
from fading. Rather than sliding away from the traps on the
left, it kicked straight into the face of a fairway bunker,
coming to rest less than two yards behind the lip and 180 yards
from the elevated green. Once again, the shot brought back
memories of the 1994 Masters, this time of Lehman's one-iron tee
shot on the 72nd hole, which he also bunkered.
With no chance to reach the green, Lehman recovered with an
eight-iron that left him 60 yards from the pin. He hit his pitch
a smidgen heavy, taking the spin off the ball and causing it to
run 18 feet past the hole. The putt that could have forced a
playoff sped past the hole on the low side.
"They say the weakest link always shows up at the crucial time,
and I've never been great at the 50-yard shot," said Lehman.
"It's something else to get better at."
Of course Lehman and Love won't be the only players haunted by
their shortcomings at Oakland Hills.
Colin Montgomerie, whose No. 2 world ranking makes him
statistically the best player not to have won a major, led the
field in fairways hit and greens in regulation, a prescription
for winning the U.S. Open if ever there was one. Unfortunately,
the Scotsman was also 87th in putting. Worse, after Montgomerie
birdied the 12th on Sunday to get to one under for the
championship, he immediately followed with a double bogey on the
par-3 13th and bogeys at the 15th and 18th. He finished tied for
10th at 283.
Masters champion Nick Faldo's dream of a Grand Slam was in play
until he doubled the 18th on Saturday to fall seven strokes
behind after 54 holes. After a final-round 70 put him 16th at
285, Faldo was wistful about the week. "The double did me in,"
he said. "I was just fractionally off, and you can't be on this
kind of course. It's a great course, very fair. I'd love to have
another go at it."
The contender who drew the most attention was, naturally, Greg
Norman. The curious scrutinized him like a laboratory rat,
looking for evidence that his fourth-round collapse at Augusta
could be fatal. Surely sensing the ghouls, a grim-faced Norman
churned out some high-level stuff, particularly on Friday, when
he shot a 66 that put him within a stroke of the 36-hole lead
and featured an eight-iron approach that sucked back into the
cup for an eagle 2 on the 16th.
But Norman battled his putter on the weekend. He missed a
10-incher on Saturday at the 17th that left him five behind
after 54 holes and "as hot as I've been walking off the golf
course in a long, long time," he said. For a while on Sunday,
Norman converted that heat into fuel, birdieing the first two
holes and pulling to within one stroke of Lehman after seven.
But Norman followed with bogeys on the next two holes to lose
contact and missed another tiddler, this one from two feet, on
the 17th. Like Montgomerie he finished 10th.
"I got absolutely nothing out of my putter," said Norman, whose
129 putts for four rounds was 94th best in the field. Then
again, nobody, not even Jones, consistently made putts at
Oakland Hills. The most common sight of the week was watching an
eight-foot putt go wide by five inches. For all the length and
thick rough built into the Monster, the biggest reason par
remained sacred was that the undulating greens were bumpy and
nearly impossible to read.
The culprit was the torrential rain that drenched the course on
Wednesday. When play began on schedule the following morning,
the traffic from the 156-man field produced thousands of
footprints. Although the greens dried, the footprints never
completely disappeared, leaving the putting surfaces, according
to Mark Brooks, who also finished 16th, "like waffles." To the
players' detriment, the Monster had been mashed.
"It's always hard to make birdies at Oakland Hills," said Jack
Nicklaus, "but this year the way the weather affected the Poa
annua on the greens made them like wire brushes. I actually
thought the course played kind of easy, because the fairways
were soft, but you couldn't make a putt."
Tom Watson, who finished 13th at 284, concurred. "Even with the
rough they had this week, if these greens were smoother and they
couldn't put the pins on knobs, we'd shoot this course in 12 or
14 under," he said.
Despite their disappointment, both Lehman and Love viewed the
Open as a step in the right direction. Even with his disastrous
three-putt, Love still putted better on Sunday than he had in
the final round last year at Shinnecock, during which he missed
six putts inside five feet.
"I figured out at Shinnecock that I don't have to play perfect
golf to win an Open," Love said. "I just have to play my game. I
want a major really bad, and I'll figure out a way to win one. I
don't know if I'll get angry, but I'm disappointed, and that
will make me work that much harder getting ready for the next
Lehman, too, was satisfied that his ball-striking and inner
resolve were stronger than they had ever been in a major. "I
know I have the game that can win one," he said. "There is
definitely an intangible that great champions have that allows
them to win. There are very few Jack Nicklauses and very few Tom
Watsons. I'm still searching for that. The biggest pressure for
me as a player now is, I never want to be stuck with the label
that I can't win the big one."
Despite all the carnage at Oakland Hills, it would be foolish to
believe that either Lehman or Love can't.