EASY DOES IT SWEET-SWINGING ERNIE ELS OUTLASTED A TRIO OF CHALLENGERS TO WIN A RAUCOUS AND RIVETING U.S. OPEN

June 22, 1997

It was getting good now, so he pressed the binoculars tight to
his eye sockets and rocked forward in his chair. He wasn't
supposed to show favorites, but his heart was too far gone to
care. His daughter had left, and his wife wasn't here, and
besides, he just couldn't keep from pulling for America's
lunch-pail pro, Tom Lehman. "People are really for him, y'know?"
he said to nobody in particular. "I just like the guy so much."
Then the President of the United States leaned forward some
more. "This is it! This is showtime!"

Below him, in the plush 17th fairway on Sunday at Congressional
Country Club in Bethesda, Md., outside Washington, Lehman looked
at his ball and wondered if things could have been any better.
Perfect lie, perfect yardage, perfect shot, right to left for
his controlled-crash hook, to a pin tucked on the left side of
the green, on a hole he needed to par, at least, if he was to
avoid becoming the answer to an ugly trivia question: Who is the
only man to lead three consecutive U.S. Opens with 18 holes to
play and blow them all?

"I just can't describe how good that situation was," Lehman said
later. "Imagine being so hungry you can't stand it. You come
around the corner and there, on a huge platter, are all your
favorite foods. It was just so perfect."

If there really is such a thing as karma, it was about time it
entered the picture for Lehman, who is a kind of Jimmy Stewart
in spikes--good and decent and square as a pan of corn bread, a
guy who grows prize roses in his backyard, cuts a dozen and
gives them to his wife every morning. "The best husband on
Tour," says one PGA Tour wife, "and the best father." He's also
the most accessible interview, the gentlest friend and the
longest-suffering player. When it comes to the Open, karma long
ago deserted Lehman. Two years ago he led at Shinnecock Hills
before he lost to his nerves. Last year, in the crunch at
Oakland Hills, he fortified his playing partner, Steve Jones,
with Bible scriptures and then took it on the chin when Jones
parred the 72nd hole and he bogeyed it. This year had to be
different.

Besides, after all that went on, didn't this week deserve a
happy ending? Into the buttoned-down land of the Subcommittee of
the House Panel on Soybean Prices had come Golfapalooza. Used to
be, U.S. Opens were a lot of whale-print pants and finger
sandwiches and arbitrage guys whispering, "Don't you just love
his wrist pronation?" But around Washington, the 97th U.S. Open
became a good reason to drink 14 beers and scream, "Siccccc 'em,
Tiger!"

Yeah, Tiger Woods is bringing all sorts of new fans to the golf
course, many of whom believe a sand wedge blast is the latest
combo deal at Subway. Golf gets a younger, louder and wilder
crowd, times two. For the first time, the sentence "check out
that pin placement" might refer to a pierced nose in the
gallery. "These aren't golf fans," one Congressional member
grumbled. "These are yahoos."

So true. And ain't it great? During Friday's 2-hour and
40-minute rain delay, the 10,000 or so gathered at the steeply
banked theater across a lake from the 17th green did the first
wave in Open history. Even when they were warned that lightning
was in the area and they would do well to take cover, they
refused to give up their positions (Are you crazy? Tiger will be
coming through!) and simply held each other's places while
making emergency trips to the microbrew tent. On Saturday,
during a one-hour frog-choker of a downpour, they turned the
hill into a sort of adult Water World, taking great running
starts at it, flopping in the mud headfirst and then trying to
figure out a way to stop themselves before having to take a free
drop out of the lake.

"This has been the rowdiest gallery I think I have ever seen,"
said Davis Love III. "It's turning into a baseball or basketball
game when people can yell or say anything they want." Imagine
that. Being able to say anything you want? At a sporting event?
In America?

O.K., so it got a little out of hand on Friday, when Tiger still
seemed to have a chance to win and the bulbous Brit, Colin
Montgomerie, took his first-round, tournament-best, five-under
65 to the course. The rain delay clogged the beer tents, and
when it was over, some cheered Monty's missed putts. Some
hollered, "Go USA!" as he left one green, causing him to holler
back, "Save it for the Ryder Cup!" Montgomerie set the record
that day for Most Times Backing Away from a Putt on Account of
Port-A-Potty Doors Slamming. All of which accompanied his 76,
Monty's worst round of the week by seven shots. Whatever
happened to keeping your head down?

God forbid Woods would've been in the hunt or the spectators
might have turned Congressional into a Manchester United game.
There was talk that Tiger, coming off his historic Masters win,
might even make a run at the Grand Slam. Instead, he started his
week by shooting a four-over 74, blowing past 100 reporters who
were looking for a comment and storming to his courtesy car,
where he took his portable CD player and did the Sony Slam into
the floorboard. "Why would you want to talk to a guy who is nine
shots out of the lead?" Woods explained the next day. Why? For
the same reason people wore full-wool tiger suits in the
90[degree] heat and NBC kept going to breathless live coverage
of Woods warming up on the practice tee. Johnny, I think he's
going to--yes! He's aiming for the range tractor!

Maybe you disagree, but Woods will win at least one of these
Opens. Last week he wasted a tournament-high 14 birdies with
three double bogeys and atrocious putting, including eight
three-putts. He finished 19th at six-over 286. "I'm humbled," he
said.

At least he completed all four rounds, something that cannot be
said of John (Long Gone) Daly. For the umpteenth time Daly quit
on his fans, this time somewhere in the sea of people between
the 9th green and the 10th tee. Daly, only three weeks out of
the Betty Ford Clinic, putted out on the 9th hole (at 10 over
par and in danger of missing the cut) and promptly disappeared.
Playing partners Ernie Els and Payne Stewart teed off on the
10th, then turned to find no Daly. Not even Daly's caddie, Brian
(Wedgie) Alexander, a guy not much bigger than the bag he was
toting, knew his boss's whereabouts. They waited. Daly didn't
show. They waited some more. Daly didn't show. A USGA official
went looking for him. Daly didn't show. Finally, Els and Stewart
went on, leaving poor Wedgie waiting by himself. When he was
finally found, Daly was having a cigarette in his courtesy car.
What, you can't let a few groups play through? Then Daly started
the car and drove straight through to his home in Memphis--some
850 miles--which four out of five doctors recommend when you're
mentally and physically exhausted.

One player who wouldn't go away was Montgomerie. Urged on by
repentant Washingtonians ("Scotland! Scotland!" they chanted),
he played well in the gloaming on Saturday, pulling to within
two shots of the lead. For his part Lehman looked like a man who
had forgotten his glasses. "We don't even like Tom to drive at
night," said his father, Jim. Presumably, he was talking about
cars, not golf balls, but he might have been referring to both.
"I have terrible night vision," Tom said. "I never saw one of my
shots land." It cost him dearly. He bogeyed two of his last four
holes before play was suspended by darkness.

Els, meanwhile, was doing the kind of thing that wins
Opens--loitering. By Saturday night, the South African was
hanging around at even par, and on Sunday he got his five
o'clock wake-up call, went out with Lehman and Texan Jeff
Maggert, and wrote himself an invitation to the chase, finishing
his third round with three birdies in five holes.

Els is one of those guys who like to make sure they are caught
up on their foot-dangling, the sort who likes nothing more than
to sit silently with a friend for 10 minutes with his hat tipped
over his face, then say, "Isn't this great?" He likes his lager
and is likely to be found drinking it with a bunch of caddies.
In fact, he is more often going to bed at five in the morning
than getting up at that hour. "Ernie is so laid-back it's
frightening," Montgomerie says.

Daylight seemed to suit Lehman much better than dusk had. He
started Sunday at seven playing "the five best holes I've played
all week"--two birdies and three pars. The strong finish moved
him to five under par at the end of three rounds, good enough
for a two-shot lead over Els and Maggert. Montgomerie was
another shot back. But by the time Lehman returned for his
mid-afternoon tee time, he had cooled. And as the quartet of
contenders made the turn, Lehman, Maggert and Montgomerie were
tied at four under, a shot ahead of Els, who soon joined the
first-place deadlock with a monster chip for birdie at the
difficult par-4 10th. They were in the last two pairings, and
they were playing some of the most thrilling golf in Open
history. "It seemed like the game was on," Lehman said, so he
dug in. He hit killer approach shots at 10 and 11, only to miss
birdie putts from eight and four feet. "Perfect rolls," he said.

On went the double-pleated rumble. Els took the lead with a
birdie at the 12th, then coughed it up on the next hole. After
missing birdie putts from close range at 11 and 12, Maggert
dropped out with a three-putt bogey on 13, and Lehman looked
ready to join him after he bogeyed the 14th, only to come
clawing back with a leaner from 107 yards to birdie the 15th.
Three were tied again.

In the group ahead, Monty was making ho-hum pars by flushing his
three-wood down the gut of the string-bean fairways and Els was
one-putting half of Maryland. In one stretch he one-putted 10 of
13 holes.

On the 16th, Lehman missed the green by mere feet, but followed
with what seemed like a perfect greenside chip. "Stop, stop,
stop!" President Clinton yelled at the TV set from his box at
the 17th, but golf balls are not generally under executive
branch jurisdiction, and this one refused. Bogey. Els and Monty
led by one.

Then Lehman came to the most dangerous hole on the course, the
water-logged, 480-yard, par-4 17th, and merely thumped his best
drive of the day. Minutes before, the gum-chewing, slow-moving,
happy-go-lucky Els had put his slowest and sweetest swing of the
day on an unforgettable five-iron that flagged the pin and
stopped eight feet behind it. What, me tense? "In all my life,"
Els confessed later, "I've never felt such tension." He missed
the putt and marked. Then Monty took more than five minutes to
hit his five-foot try for par. The Scot, who seems to have
remarkable hearing, said there was a disturbance to the left of
the 17th and he was unsure what was happening across the water
on the 18th green, so he waited. All that dallying "got to me a
little bit," said Els. "And you know, he missed his putt. I just
went up and knocked mine in." Monty thus became the first
athlete in history to freeze himself. Hares 1, Turtles 0.

Now, with the crowd and a country and a President behind him,
Lehman lined up that seven-iron at 17. How could he fail? Of the
three contenders left, Lehman was the only American. Shouldn't
he win his own Open? Of the three left, Lehman was the one with
the most kids (three). Wasn't it Father's Day? Of the three
left, Lehman was the oldest, at 38. "You just don't get many
chances like this," he admitted afterward.

Someday something really wonderful waits for Lehman. Maybe he
will reach into a hole one day and pull out the Hope Diamond.
But it is looking as if nothing wonderful is going to happen to
him in the U.S. Open. Against all odds, the toe of that perfect
seven-iron caught in the ground as he swung, and, though the
ball was on line for the longest time, it drifted left, landing
on the bank of the green and dribbling into the water with a
sickening glug. "I'd give anything in the world for a mulligan,"
Lehman said.

After taking a drop, Lehman still could have salvaged a par by
holing his chip shot. No such luck.

Two shots back as he stood on the 18th tee, Lehman had "only one
place to go with this one," caddie Andrew Martinez told his man.
Could this be what the gods had saved up? An ace to force an
Open playoff? The seven-iron landed eight feet beyond the cup.
"It's hard enough to make a hole in one," Lehman said. "Much
less on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open."

Montgomerie, meanwhile, had needed only a birdie to force a
playoff. He filibustered his 25-foot attempt, waiting for Lehman
and Maggert to finish on 17. Surprise! The putt drifted left.
Afterward, Monty wandered toward a roped-off section of the
Congressional veranda and cried. He has had four dances at
majors--the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble (third), the 1994 U.S. Open
at Oakmont (lost to Els in a playoff), the 1995 PGA at Riviera
(lost to Steve Elkington in a playoff), and this--and won zip.
"Maybe if I knock on the door enough, the door will open one
day," he said.

Lehman just bit his lip. "I must be still lacking something," he
said. "Maybe I get too overjuiced, too pumped up. I know I'm
good enough to win one of these." How does a gentle man like
Lehman get over this one? "I'll probably be practicing one day
about two weeks from now," he said, "and it'll hit me, and I'll
just go into a rage and take out a tree, just completely rip it
apart." Two reporters stepped back a smidge. He didn't seem to
be joking.

For Els, it was the sweetest victory of his life. His buttery
swing, trusty stroke and deep vats of patience never left him.
"When I won the Open in '94, I said if people would be patient
with me, I'd win another of these," he said. "And I have." Like
Jack Nicklaus, he won his second Open at age 27, and he might
just come ambling along and pick up another every three years or
so. For his latest effort, Els received a $465,000 check and God
knows what kind of endorsements. "I wasn't ready the first time
[I won the Open]," he said. "I'm ready now." Said Clinton of the
6'3" Els, "Big, strong kid, isn't he? Looks like a linebacker."

Much later, as a June moon rose over Congressional and a
historic week was fading to yellow, you could look out on the
course and see only a solitary figure, still standing.

Wedgie, go home. He's not coming.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY A Bird's-Eye View Tom Lehman (bending over) prepares to drop his ball after hitting into the water at the 17th hole during the final round of the U.S. Open. There's a down-to-earth look at this critical turn of events on page 46. [Aerial view of Tom Lehman and others--T of C] COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Els was at his Sunday best, playing the last day's 23 holes in four under. [Ernie Els] COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER When his ball met a watery grave at 17, Lehman searched for Open answers for a third straight year. [Tom Lehman reaching for ball in water] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Woods's putting stroke deserted him at Congressional, but his flock of fans continued to grow. [Tiger Woods putting] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK With his second U.S. Open title all but in hand, Els put the wraps on his caddie, Ricci Roberts. [Ernie Els hugging Ricci Roberts]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)