From the Golf Journal Archives - Congressional Mettle of Honor

May 27, 2011

With Four Players Poised to Win the 97th U.S. Open, Ernie Els Emerged With the Congressional Mettle of Honor.

By Brett Avery

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Golf Journal.)

IT’S A PITY MORE CROWD FAVORITES do not win the U.S. Open. If that wish came true, Sam Snead would have at least one, Tom Watson a second. Give Bob Jones a handful, and a fifth to Ben Hogan. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer would have plenty.

Tom Lehman would have one. Or two. Perhaps three.

But congeniality is not a factor in the National Open. It is about strangling rough. And exacting greens. And the realization that the next shot is the one that can lose the Open more than it can win it.

Ernie Els learned that last-man-standing lesson in 1994. He won what was then called the Chokemont Open, in an 18-hole playoff against Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts, despite beginning Monday’s extra round with a bogey and triple bogey.

Three years ago, when I won this tournament,” he recalled this year, “it was like a war out there.”

A trio of contenders have learned that lesson all too well, only because they were the last to suffer its merciless wrath this year at Congressional Country Club in the 97th U.S. Open. Early in the final nine Lehman, Jeff Maggert and Montgomerie shared the lead with Els at four under par. One by one, they bore the blame of flawed shot-making, leaving the 27-year-old Els the victor of his second Open title.

The first casualty was Maggert, whose only U.S. victory was the ’93 Disney. He needed 35 putts in the final round – only five players took more – and shot 40 on the incoming nine. His nightmares were a bogey at the 13th and a bogey-double run from No. 16. For the week he played the back nine – “my downfall,” he called it – in 11 over par.

Montgomerie, the Diogenes of major championships, waited five agonizing minutes at the 71st green to stroke a five-foot par putt to keep up with Els, his fellow competitor in the day’s penultimate paring. Deferring to crowd noise in the amphitheater around the last two greens, and then allowing others to finish at the 72nd, Montgomerie missed “the most important putt I’ve ever hit.” Runner-up for a third time in a major on American soil, he retreated in tears after signing his score card.

Yet the horrific moments were once again saved for Lehman. For a third straight year he led through 54 holes, a stretch of Open superiority seen just twice – from none other than Jones in 1922-24 and 1928-30. This time Lehman bogeyed the 70th when his 7-iron approach shot came up 30 feet short of the hole in deep rough, leaving Els and Montgomerie alone at four under.

Atonement arrived at the 71st fairway, where Lehman faced a “perfect yardage” of 193 for another 7-iron, to a “perfect” hole location set at the back-left of the peninsula green. “I knew it was my bread-and-butter,” he said, but caught the ball a hair fat, and it one-hopped off the slope left of the green and splooshed into the lake. Said Lehman afterward: “I would give anything in the world for a mulligan.”

That left Els to drop a remarkably unremarkable four-foot par putt at the 190-yard closing hole for a 276 total, one ahead of Montgomerie and two ahead of Lehman, the only others below par for the week. It was Els’ 23rd hole of the day, having resumed play at the 14th tee at 7 a.m. after a two-hour weather interruption Saturday had for a second straight day stranded players at darkness.

That’s where Els opened his sleepy eyes by scrambling for par, recovering from a so-so pitch with a 12-foot par putt that provided an incentive for victory. “I never made any putts (Saturday) and that was probably the key for me,” Els said. “I was right back in the tournament, only two behind Tom, and I felt good.”

Els birdied the Blue Course’s 15th, 16th and 17th, posted a 1-under 69 for the third round and added another 69 in the afternoon. With that the 6-foot-3 South African had become only the 17th player to win multiple Open titles and the first of foreign birth since Alex Smith in 1906 and ‘10.

“It came quite quick for me in ‘94,” Els said Sunday night, staring at the U.S. Open trophy as if it were a long-lost relative. “I was 24. And I wasn’t quite a major contender for a very long time. I said people better be patient with me, and maybe I wasn’t all that patient through the last couple of years.

“I’ve come close in a couple of other majors. And that went through my mind today. I didn’t want to lose.”

Neither did the other 155 players who began the week, but Congressional was anything but an accommodating course. At 7,213 yards it stretched 22 yards longer than the record 1965 setup at Bellerive Country Club; with rough standing up to eight inches deep, it was one of the most penal tests in history. Add two-hour delays for rain and lightning on Friday and Saturday and the field was left exhausted, physically and mentally.

With stamina a requirement, this Open was destined for youth but, originally, not Els. Decades from now this may be viewed as the year two legs of a youthful triumvirate emerged, but going into the week the talk was all Tiger. In the wake of a 12-shot victory in the Masters, Eldrick (Tiger) Woods was all but conceded the Grand Slam by the nation’s golfing press. Five times a winner in 18 PGA Tour starts since turning professional, he had $2 million in official earnings and endorsement contracts nearing nine figures. Overnight he became a 21-year-old lightning rod, both off the course (he was ravaged in the press for making crude remarks during a magazine interview) as well as on it (rankling his peers by claiming he won the Byron Nelson with play that deserved a C- grade).

“People fail to realize that when you’re 21 or when you’re young, period, you’re going to make mistakes,” Woods said during a standing-room-only press conference Tuesday. “If you’ll look at their lives when they were that young, they made a lot of mistakes. Unfortunately I’m going to make some, too. I’m not trying to create excuses for myself. But I’m learning. I’m growing.”

Woods even found a way to draw headlines during Wednesday’s practice round. In an attempt to shake free of the crushing galleries that shadow his every move, Woods and his entourage began a practice round before 7 a.m. from the 10th tee. At that hour the course belongs to the maintenance crew, and Woods’ presence, even without the usual mass of spectators, was an intrusion. USGA officials caught up with Woods at the 13th and asked him to halt his play, prompting a bleeping reaction from Woods.

The pressure of going for the Slam’s second leg was showing. His easy Masters victory was in opposition to his previous Opens, categorized as amateurish at best. In 1995 Woods opened with a 74 and withdrew during the second round when he injured his wrist; the next year he briefly led the first round at Oakland Hills, only to tumble to nearly last place in the span of a few holes.

The talk early in the week was that Congressional’s setup favored his strength: length. Woods went into the Open averaging 291.5 yards in the tour’s driving distance statistics, first by a wide margin despite using a 3-wood or iron at many measured holes. The players warned of the consequences of Congressional’s length. “This one is a beast,” Greg Norman said. “It’s 7,200 yards of pure no let-up.” Yet Lehman made an erudite point: “There’s a boundary where you’re either too short or you’re long enough, and if you can just be to that line where you’re long enough, you’re okay.”

Montgomerie, as straight as he is long, missed one fairway and two greens Thursday and needed just 29 putts in his opening 5-under 65 to take the lead. Four days earlier in England he’d posted the same final-round score to win the European Grand Prix by five, navigating the last 11 holes in seven under par. “There will not be anyone going to the U.S. Open feeling more confident than me,” he declared.

It seemed that way as, playing in the day’s seventh group, Montgomerie stood on the tee at Congressional’s 480-yard 17th with six birdies on his card and the Open’s record of 63 within his grasp. To anyone seeing him after his drive at the sixth, 63 would have seemed ludicrous. Montgomerie had missed birdies from eight, six and four feet at the first three holes, then drove into the rough at the brutal 475-yard sixth. Welcome to America, Mr. Montgomerie.

“I had to hack out with a sand wedge,” he said, leaving 157 yards to the flagstick, a distance he covered with an 8-iron he nearly holed. “After missing three opening birdie chances, the sixth was the most vital hole of the day. If I’d missed that par attempt, if I’d made 5, which was on the cards, to go 1 over, I possibly wouldn’t have birdied the seventh and therefore 9, 10 and 11.”

His first hint of trouble came at the 17th, the closing hole where Ken Venturi won the ‘64 Open and Tom Weiskopf the ‘95 Senior Open. When the USGA decided to play the course the way the members do, and finish with the par-3 18th, the 17th faded in stature. It would extract its revenge, and Montgomerie was its first victim and one of its last.

Thursday, from the center of the fairway, Montgomerie hit his approach into a bunker, blasted out to 15 feet and narrowly missed the par-saver. He played it safe at the 18th with a 6-iron to the center of the green and two putts. Montgomerie had six 3s on the back nine; if he met fellow competitors Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson (75s each), a pair of potential Ryder Cup foes, in a better-ball match, Montgomerie would have won, 5 and 4. No surprise, then, that he called it his “best round” in a major.

Eight others broke par and another eight equaled it. Els was in a 22-way tie for 18th at 71 on a day when the field’s average was 73.84; he bogeyed the 16th and 18th. Lehman had 67 thanks to an incoming 32, placing him a shot behind Steve Stricker, who had never bettered 70 in an Open, and ‘80 Amateur champ Hal Sutton.

What was unexpected was the number of “name” players who jeopardized their chances at making the 36-hole cut. Woods was two under and tied for third through the 10th, but wound up at 4-over 74. Furious, he stormed past nearly 100 reporters gathered in an interview area near the scorer’s building and addressed a pool reporter only when he reached his courtesy car. He answered several questions by saying, “I don’t know.” At least he bettered Fred Couples and Greg Norman (75s), Ian Woosnam and Scott Simpson (76s) and John Daly (77), who all stopped to chat.

Friday the 13th was a nightmare on River Road that tested the field’s ability to sit and wait. During the calm before the storm, the skies grew darker and, with barely any wind, the early players took advantage. Until 11:52 a.m., that is, when progressively closer lightning strikes forced officials to suspend play for more than two hours. At the time there were 16 players under par for the day, another 17 at par, and only 12 finished with their rounds. Lehman was one under through the 16th and a shot behind Montgomerie (still awaiting his starting time) when the air horns sounded; Lehman wore a disgusted look at having to wait indefinitely before striking one of the day’s most crucial shots.

One player unconcerned by the wait, and the prospect of not finishing the second round on Friday, was Daly, who abruptly withdrew from his second start since an eight-week stay at the Betty Ford Center. Daly shot three over on the front nine and, without alerting fellow competitors Els and Payne Stewart or their walking Rules official, went from the ninth green to the parking lot. The ensuing confusion over Daly’s whereabouts – his caddie had gone to No. 10 and panicked when his player did not show – proved detrimental to Els, who had gone out in 31. Left in a twosome, the interminable waits between shots, as well as the weather delay after 14 holes, were too much and he totaled 67 to stand a shot behind Lehman’s provisional Friday night lead at 3 under.

“I’m quite a quick player,” Els said. “The back nine especially was really slow for us.” He sped things up at the 583-yard 15th, where he used a driver from 273 yards and reached the green, then two-putted from 18 feet for birdie. “I’m hitting the ball quite solidly, so I felt good about the shot,” he said. Els also felt encouraged by a late-night putting session following the first round, during which he erased the doubts of his three-putt bogey at the 18th Thursday.

Montgomerie was anything but calm Friday; he was minutes from his starting time when play was halted, and he shot a 76 that nearly derailed his chances. He found just five fairways and eight greens, displayed the worst case of rabbit ears for a world-class player, and generally regretted every moment. The gallery was turning against him, and when a spectator shouted a jingoistic aside at one tee Montgomerie snapped to “save it for the Ryder Cup.”

With the rain delay, the cut was postponed until Saturday, when the 45 players stranded on the course at nightfall tidied up as many as nine holes. Group No. 52 of Dennis Zinkon, Bill Porter and John Pillar was scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. Friday, actually left the tee at 6:10, and finished at 9:32 a.m. That stop-start quality hurt plenty of players.

There were two notable casualties. The first was Joel Kribel, a member of the U.S. team at last year’s World Amateur Team Championship in the Philippines. An opening 70 placed him in contention, and with one of the latest starting times for the second round he could whittle away the delay without going to the course. He was even par through 24 holes, the low Stanford University player (Woods reached the midpoint at 1 over), but played his last 12 holes in 8 over, including a bogey-bogey-triple finish to miss by one.

The other was Gary Nicklaus, a sentimental favorite for the crowd cheering on only the fourth father-son combo in the same Open, the first since Gary and Wayne Player each missed the cut in 1982. Jack was in his 41st Open (perhaps his last), and his 150th career major; Gary was in his first Open. “When I got to the course this morning,” Jack said Friday, “the first thing I turned on was the computer and saw that (Gary) was 10 over after 14. I was depressed for him as any father would be.” Earlier, Jack had said, “This is the only tournament that I’m hoping I can finish second.” He tied for 52nd, instead. When Nicklaus walked off the 18th green Sunday to a standing ovation, it was not difficult to see the look of sadness in his eyes. All those years of searching for a next Nicklaus, when the real one was before our eyes.

The herky-jerky schedule plagued the third round, too. Once again Lehman was addressing a crucial shot at 5:06 p.m. when the air horns sounded, a 1-iron from the ninth fairway after whiffing his drive into the right rough and gouging out. He led at five under with Maggert, who whipped through the front nine in 31 on the heels of a 66. Sutton and Stewart Cink, the former Georgia Tech All-America, were three under while Montgomerie lurked at two under.

The rains not only ensured a Sunday finish for the third round, but when the merry-go-round started up again Saturday afternoon at 7:10 even the longest approach shot would sit quickly or even back up. Given 90 minutes to darkness, the players strode into the foggy twilight to squeeze in every hole possible. Casual water was everywhere, and players refused relief when the option was a drop into the rough. In addition, the fog meant longer shots hit the earth well out of their eyesight.

When the sirens blared at 8:20 p.m., just 21 players were stranded. The numbers told a bloody story: Those in the top 10 when play resumed lost a combined 13 shots, including one by Maggert (conditional leader at four under through 14), two by Lehman (-3 through 13) and none by Montgomerie (-2 through 16). Give gold stars to Scott Hoch, Hideki Kase, Mark McNulty, David Ogrin, Jeff Sluman, Sutton and Roberts, who took early wake-up calls both weekend mornings. None finished worse than a tie for 28th.

Sunday, Father’s Day, seemed perfect for Lehman and every newspaper columnist. Although Maggert took the Sunday headlines for that slim overnight lead, it was Lehman who made two birdies, including one at the 18th, for a two-stroke lead through 54 holes. Maggert fiddled away one shot to equal Lehman’s third-round 68, but it was Els who caught fire in an innocuous 69.

“I knew I had to get back to even par” for the round, Els said before leaving the course for a nap and lunch. “To be too far from Tom is not good.” Els reduced the three shots between them with the par-saving putt at the 14th to resume his round, then birdied the next three. He was two behind Lehman, tied with Maggert at 207, while Montgomerie stood on 208. Jay Haas, Tolles and Ogrin were at 210 but it was a lot to devour.

The fourth round goes down as a classic, when four men beat up on each other as much as the course hammered them. To chronicle every exchange of the lead or tie pales against a videotape of the broadcast. What made this an ideal day was that everyone behind the foursome fell away, giving them a clear stage. Even Woods, towing the largest galleries no matter what he scored, shot 286 and bowed out two hours before the leaders reached their conclusion.

Giving the proceedings a loftier air was the presence of President Bill Clinton, enjoying a Father’s Day present from daughter Chelsea. Still recovering from a late-night spill at the home of Greg Norman, the First Golfer showed his enthusiasm from a special tent beside the 16th green. Nine groups passed for his review, including the pairing of Nick Faldo and Woods. Talk about an intersection of power.

The real action was at the bottom of the lineup, however, and it only got better as Lehman surrendered his two-shot advantage. Lehman found the rough at the 455-yard third hole for the fourth consecutive time and bogeyed, then came up short of the green at the 434-yard fourth and made 5 while Maggert ran down a 40-foot birdie. Haas’ deuce at the brutish second put him two under, and for a moment it appeared he’d catch up, but he doubled the 407-yard fifth and dropped off the radar.

All four contenders bogeyed the 475-yard sixth, as uncompromising a hole as anyone could remember in an Open. A slight dogleg left, the second shot dealt with a pond beside the front and right of the green. For the week only 34.7 percent of the field hit the green in regulation, and at 4.533 strokes it was the toughest on the course – let alone the planet.

Els birdied the next two, the second to break a four-way tie at three under. At the 174-yard seventh his 7-iron stopped on the crest of the slope between the tiers and he ran down a 17-footer, then canned a 14-footer at the 362-yard eighth. Montgomerie flubbed his downhill 4½-footer at No. 8 and a four-way tie at four under had to wait.

By then every leader board was studied, and the volunteers posting scores slowed their movements, extracting every drop of delicious anticipation. The two-shot swing at the ninth between Montgomerie’s birdie and Els’ bogey, from a grass bunker beside the green, hinted at disaster for Els.

“I had the lead at that stage, and laid it up perfect with a 5-iron,” Els said. “I had about 125 yards, and I just tried to hit the wedge too hard.” His pitch from impossible rough ran 10 feet past, and the comebacker wickedly lipped out.

The three others turned at four under, and Els was teetering. He crushed a drive at the 466-yard 10th, but his 6-iron second came up about 40 feet short of the hole just off the putting surface. His pitch shot landed gently and ran, like a putt, into the hole. “That was a big swing,” he said. “I knew I had to play well the back nine, and I never played the back nine well all week.” It was the fourth birdie on the hole all day, at a green where 33.7 percent of the players hit the green in regulation all week.

Els birdied the 12th to reach five under and again lead alone, staking a 5-iron to 12 feet. Maggert was running out of gas and bogeyed the 13th. Three in contention. Lehman, who missed inside five feet at the 10th and 11th, bogeyed the 14th, where he caught a flyer from the rough and his 8-iron went long. He recovered with a wedge from 107 yards to inside a foot at the 15th, then bogeyed the 16th when his “little cut 7-iron” came up short.

Purists may argue, but the day was better than the cavalry charge of 1986 at Shinnecock Hills, where a dozen players jostled. The reason was that the ‘97 quartet was in a fishbowl in the last two groups. It’s also difficult to tell which was more compelling: one man staggering at the brink of heat exhaustion, nearly broke and beaten by the game, winning the ‘64 Open, or four men of varying acclaim and nationality, trying to avoid the questions of What if. . . ?

Match play was in the air; pity for the other two that Els had won the World Match-Play title three straight years. Els hit first from the 17th fairway and rifled his 5-iron to 15 feet behind the hole. Montgomerie had 202 yards and hit a weak 6-iron that drifted right and nearly found sand. Montgomerie’s third trickled to within five feet, then Els narrowly missed his birdie attempt. Inexplicably, Montgomerie waved at the crowd for silence – it kept buzzing along – and then motioned for Tolles and Haas to close out at the last green. When it was his turn, with Lehman watching from up the hill in the fairway, Montgomerie’s putt drifted off in the last inches. Four days, four bogeys at the 17th.

“In glorious hindsight, if we all had hindsight, we’d be better people for it,” Montgomerie said. “But at the end of the day, I felt I had to wait.”

Els walked to the tee certain he needed a birdie, but when Lehman’s approach splashed he aimed for the center of the green. Lehman needed an ace after his bogey, “do or die.” He died.

“Losing three years in a row, this is probably the toughest one,” said Lehman, who a month earlier was ranked, for a week, No. 1 in the world. “I really believe that I am mentally tough enough. I believe that I have enough confidence. I believe that I’m patient enough. I believe that I’m good enough. I haven’t backed down. I haven’t wimped out. I haven’t choked my guts out. It just hasn’t happened.”

Els watched Lehman’s tee shot at the 18th until it halted on the fringe, then hugged his parents, Neels and Hattie. They were home in South Africa in ‘94 when their son, Theodore Ernest, shocked the world. Home again when he dropped a three-stroke lead in the ‘95 PGA Championship. On hand last summer when Els threatened at the British Open, but he made two errant shots in the stretch and surrendered to Lehman.

“I wanted to show off a little bit and show them how you win an Open,” Els said, nodding toward his parents. “And it’s a good feeling.”

Better than being the crowd favorite.

The 2011 U.S. Open will be played at Congressional Country Club from June 16-19. For more information about the championship, visit the U.S. Open website.

The smooth-swinging Els was steady down the stretch, and when all the other contenders faded, he was left with his second Open title. (USGA Museum)

Neels and Hattie Els (left) were in South Africa when Ernie and girlfriend Liezl Weymeyer posed in 1994. (USGA Museum)