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.
The end did not seem at hand for Nicklaus, who was leading the tournament by one shot at the very moment when Palmer was saying his tearful goodbye. At 54 Nicklaus shouldn’t have been anywhere near the lead, and yet, somehow, he was. In practice he had played absolutely abysmally, but on Thursday morning, as he was heading out the door, his wife, Barbara, spun him around, opened her eyes as wide as they would go, started wiggling her fingers and chanted, “It’s 1962…you’re 22…you’re 22….”
Which turned out to be wrong, because Nicklaus played better than he had when he was 22. He went into the world’s largest outdoor sauna and dragged back a 69, three shots better than the 72 he had on the Thursday when he won here in 1962 and only one shot back of the Thursday leader, another collectible, Tom Watson. And when Nicklaus followed that with a one-under 70 on Friday, you wondered if something was happening here. Why not? For a time on Friday the leader board looked more like 1978. You had Nicklaus, 44-year-old Watson and 49-year-old Hale Irwin hanging around at the top with their bad backs and their yippy putters and their Metamusil.
Naturally, this was too much fun for Oakmont, which put the kibosh on it. Watson hexed himself on Saturday night when he said, “Oakmont is a friend of mine.” Some friend. Watson could’ve—should’ve—won twice at Oakmont before, but in 1978 the course handed him a 38 on the back nine Sunday when he lost the PGA to John Mahaffey in a playoff, and another 38 on the back nine to lose to Larry Nelson in the 1983 Open by one shot. This time, at least, Watson didn’t shoot 38. He shot matching 37s for a three-over 74, sixth place, and his four millionth broken heart.
As for Nicklaus, Barbara must have wiggled her fingers Saturday morning and told her husband, “You’re Angelo Spagnola…You’re Angelo Spagnola…” because he played like America’s worst avid golfer, shooting 40 on the front nine, 77 for the day and 76 the next, thus proving that Oakmont has the heart of a repo man. “Well,” said Nicklaus. “I got back on my game, you might say.”
In exchange for the two greatest American players of the 1970s, Oakmont coughed up New Zealander Frank (Blackbeard) Nobilo, a man descended from pirates, and the extralarge, blond, 24-year-old, gum-chewing, pin-knocking kid from Johannesburg, Els, who led by two strokes on Saturday night after throwing in a little 30 on the front nine and a 66 for the day.
When Sunday came, things started to get ugly. The eight players atop the Sunday-morning leader board—from Els at seven under to Strange at three under—wound up 19 over par for the day. Even the three guys who ended up in the Monday playoff were flubbing. They hit 27 fairways out of 42 (Els hit only seven), 30 greens out of 54 (miserable) and made 12 bogeys. Not one of them played the back nine in par or better. Congratulations, gentlemen. Now please leave the premises.
Which is why it almost made sense for a while that a urologist from Indianapolis should win the Open.
His name was Dr. Trey Holland, chairman of the USGA Rules Committee, and he nearly gave the tournament to Els. What happened was that Els got himself a stomachful of hummingbirds on the 1st tee and smashed his driver into rough you could lose a piano in. At that point Ernie had to wish he were somewhere Els, because the best he could do was chip out sideways and make bogey, and the worst he could do was make double and lose the Open five minutes into his round.
But that’s when Holland decided that an ABC cherry picker with a camera on it was in Els’s “line of play” to the hole. “It’s a temporary immovable obstruction,” said Holland. It was temporary, all right, but it certainly was the first object on wheels ever called immovable. Holland allowed Els a free drop on a sweet patch of trampled-down grass.
“Dang,” said a fan nearby. “Why don’t you just give him a tee?”
Els knocked it onto the green, then three-putted anyway. Not long after, the “immovable obstruction” started up its engine and drove off.
“I made a mistake,” Holland said later. “I feel bad.”
Els got an even lovelier ruling 16 holes later, on the 17th, when not only were his wheels coming off, but the axles, muffler and ashtray, too. Having just three-putted the par-3 16th to fall back into a tie with Roberts at six under, he tried to drive the 315-yard par-4 17th and hit it so far left his ball wound up behind the bleachers by the green. The urologist said those three words again—”temporary immovable obstruction”—and suddenly Els had gotten more free lifts than a Clinton staff member. This time Els was allowed to get out from behind the bleachers and then drop 15 yards forward into a lovely, flat, predetermined drop area, which he enjoyed very much, chipping up to within five feet of the hole.
That ruling was a mistake, too, but it wasn’t the doc’s fault. The USGA allows a drop from behind bleachers and such things, but a drop circle that lets you advance the ball 15 yards!
All right, Freddie. Just let rip with one of them screaming pull hooks so it winds up behind the Haagen-Dazs stand. You get to drop on the green.
Els graciously two-putted for a four and then went out and nearly blew it all on the next hole by doing the stupidest thing in his young life. Leading by one but not knowing it, he tried to “knock the stuffings out of it” with a driver on the par-4 18th; he hit it left of left, so far left that it ended up in front of the 15th tee, with nothing much between him and the green but a hanging willow tree and a ditch and a hillock with a bunker on the other side of it. Incredibly, it was a drop-free zone.
“I thought I needed a birdie to win,” said Els, who deliberately hadn’t looked at a scoreboard since the 15th hole. “If I’d known [that I was leading], I’d have hit a two-iron or three-wood. I’m kicking my backside over that one.”
Els chipped it out into the fairway and, karma being what it is, right into a sandy divot. He chunked it out of there to the frog hair and made a gritty two-putt for the tie.
Roberts could have won outright, too, and very probably should have. Roberts has neither the pedigree nor the future that his playoff opponents have. Were it not for his wonderful putting (the caddies call him Boss of the Moss), Roberts, 40, might be back selling sandwiches out of the pro shop snack bar at Morro Bay (Calif.) Municipal Golf Course. His first PGA Tour win came at Bay Hill this winter. On Saturday at Oakmont he put up a tournament-low 64 and suddenly, incredibly, he was facing an easy par putt on the 18th hole Sunday that, as it turned out, would have won him the championship.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better putt to win the Open,” Roberts said afterward. “Four feet, right up the hill, little left-to-right. And I’m thinking, This could be for the U.S. Open.”
Uh-oh. Double hex. The putter wobbled on the way back, and the ball gave the hole the cold shoulder. Bogey. “I could have made that putt and gone home and had a new life,” Roberts said. Instead, he drove back to the Holiday Inn and got a new room, lay down and tried to sleep with himself.
As for Montgomerie, who finished before Roberts and Els, he had had his own putt on 18 that would have won it all, a birdie try that came up short. But the 31-year-old hit his pillow Sunday in the best frame of mind of the three, for he thought he had finished one shot out until not one but two leaders fell right back into his lap with 72nd-hole bogeys. “I never really had an opportunity to take the championship, so I feel better about being in a playoff than everybody,” he said. “But if I can relax tonight, I’m superhuman.”
And that’s how we ended up with a playoff among three guys who could walk into Three Rivers Stadium and not turn a head, but three guys who were hoping that Oakmont had made them wait long enough.
By Monday afternoon, the wait had ended only for Els. As he stood on the 11th green, letting Oakmont and its gallery finally wash him with cheers and whistles and well dones, he must have noticed the 100-year-old silver chalice that goes to the winner, noticed the handles on it, and maybe he said to himself, Now that’s a permanent movable object.