This article first appeared in the June 27, 1994 edition of Sports Illustrated.
Ernie Els may someday win a Samsonite full of majors and half of Johannesburg besides, but he'll never forget his first, the one he won, kicked away, had gift wrapped for him, lost forever and finally just plain wore out.
Said Curtis Strange of Els last week, "I think I just played with the next god." It must be true, for who else but a god could win a U.S. Open after playing most of his approach shots out of wheat fields, leaving his brain at the hotel and starting a Monday playoff bogey, triple bogey?
South Africa's Els did all of these things and yet still beat America's Loren Roberts and Scotland's Colin Montgomerie in a three-way playoff to win at Oakmont, now Els' Kitchen, the place that gave birth to Jack Nicklaus's career, crowned Johnny Miller's and knew Arnie as a boy.
The end had a feeling of greatness to it, which was funny because, until then, that playoff may have been the ugliest thing to happen to golf since argyle knickers. In fact, had you watched the first five holes on Monday, you would have been sure it was Caddie Day, as the three men hit five greens. Total. Montgomerie actually chunked three chips. They made two bogeys, three doubles and a triple. One more would have tied them for the lead with Barry Bonds. By then Strange, who missed the playoff by one stroke, must have been biting a hole in his armchair."
It was squirmingly comical. If golf ever dies completely on this planet, the second hole Monday may be the reason. Els hit his approach shot into a bush, took a penalty drop on the 3rd tee, chipped over the green, hit a lousy little chip back and two-putted for a triple-bogey seven. Montgomerie, meanwhile, was laying two near the green and short-gamed his way to a six. Roberts won the hole with a bogey. Is there a nine-hole cut in an Open playoff?
But as gruesome as Els played, as crooked as he hit it (he hit six fairways all day), as seldom as you could see his shoes as he stood in the rough, he would never quite go away. Montgomerie, who more and more resembled Mrs. Doubtfire as the sultry day wore on, slipped away (he would finish at seven over for the day), but not Els. After 16 holes Els and Roberts were tied at four over par. And even though Roberts poured in about eight miles of putts on the 17th and 18th, he could not shake Els, who poured in teeth-chatterers of his own.
Finally, on the 20th playoff hole of the day—Oakmont's 11th—Roberts unraveled. He seemed rattled by the crowds swarming the fairway and, after a delay to push them back, whipsawed his drive into the right cabbage. From there he could only advance it into a huge sand bunker in front of the green, blast out from the lip and try a 35-footer, which horseshoed out of the hole. Bogey five. Els, meanwhile, made a simple par—a rare iron off the tee into the (gasp) fairway, an easy nine-iron on, a two-putt and glory.
Everybody from here to Altoona seemed to know the best player, the new next Nicklaus, had won—even Roberts, who would have won under a sudden-death format and would have won under the British Open four-hole format. "This," admitted Roberts, "is still the truest way to settle a championship."
Actually, until Monday it seemed as if nobody would win the Open. Basically, it looked like the movie version of How to Line Up Your Fourth Putt, with a few scenes from Misery thrown in. Remember Miller's incredible Sunday 63 at the 1973 Open here? Well, on Thursday, Miller's 63rd shot was off the 14th tee.
Oakmont was about as much fun as the gout, featuring fairways so narrow a man with wide feet might have to walk heel-toe down them to keep from snagging his laces on the weeds; rough five inches high and nasty; shirt-soaking, 90-something-degree heat that broke Pittsburgh records five days in a row; seasick, brown greens, harder than the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which divides the course in half; and dirty, rotten pin positions. In other words the natural and classic horribleness that is a U.S. Open, times two. "This is the hardest course I've ever seen," announced Nick Faldo.
By Friday not only had Faldo missed his first cut in a major since the 1986 PGA, but the defending U.S. Open champion, Lee Janzen, was gone too, not to mention Payne Stewart, Nick Price (and the five putters he brought with him), Corey Pavin and John Daly, who became the first player to shoot 81-73 and still take home $30 million, that being his reported payday for the 10-year deal he signed with Wilson Sporting Goods Co. on Tuesday.
It was a week when the course and the temperatures and the traffic and the pressure could suck the emotions out of a strong man, and Arnold Palmer, 64, was that man.
Showing a sense of poetry, the USGA blazers gave Palmer a special exemption, and Arnie had announced beforehand that it would be his last Open appearance. Palmer shot 77 the first day and three-putted the last four greens Friday for an 81. Still, for an 81, you never heard such a sustained jet-engine roar as the 18th-hole gallery gave him. But that ovation and the sun and the moment and the realization that the end was at hand finally caused him to break down.