Even 75 doesn't close Open door for Stewart Simpson falters, loses playoff

June 18, 1991|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHASKA, MINN — CHASKA, Minn. -- After what happened yesterday at Hazeltine National Golf Club, the folks in charge of deciding the playoff used in the U.S Open might want to reconsider seriously the 18-hole format.

Call it a blight to the finish.

With a 3-over par 75 -- the highest winning playoff score in the tournament's past 67 years -- Payne Stewart won the 91st Open championship by two strokes over Scott Simpson, who bogeyed the last holes to lose.

It was Stewart's second major title, following his win at the PGA Championship in 1989, and came under similar circumstances, when Mike Reid faltered down the stretch with bogeys on two of the last three holes. The victory, Stewart's eighth overall, was worth $235,000.

"The first one [major] was sweet, but a lot of people thought backed into that one," said Stewart, 34, who overcame an early-season neck injury to win his first tournament of the year. "I don't feel like I backed into this one. I played my butt off and I never gave up."

It wouldn't have mattered how hard Stewart played, especially overthe last three holes, had Simpson not collapsed on the final three holes for the third straight day. Even Stewart's lone birdie at 16 -- his first in 31 holes -- would have been insignificant had Simpson made pars.

Consider this: In each of the final two rounds of regulation, Simpson saw two-shot leads disappear, the second time forcing the playoff. But yesterday was worse, with a three-putt at 16 for bogey, a tee shot into the water at 17, a drive into the rough at 18. His chance at a second Open championship were over.

"I'm a little disappointed, obviously," said Simpson, 35, whos 5-over 77 was the highest losing playoff score since Cary Middlecoff shot 79 in 1957. "After the 15th hole, I thought I had a great chance again. It's disappointing to lose the Open two days in a row."

It was a day when the pool-table greens reduced two of the PGA Tour's best putters into flailing, frustrated hacks. The round was fraught with mistakes, but with very little drama. About the most noteworthy thing to happen before the last three holes came at No. 8, a par-3, when Stewart's tee shot hit a rock in the water and popped out.

"To win championships, you need to have some good luck," said Stewart, who bogeyed the hole when his 6-footer for par hit the cup -- what else? -- and rolled out.

Said Simpson, "I thought it was a lucky break, but I realized those things are going to happen and there's not much you can do about it."

Right from the start, it was apparent that neither player was going to dominate the course or the other. Simpson fell behind by two shots with bogeys on the first two holes, but drew even when he birdied No. 5 and Stewart bogeyed. It was the first of three holes that produced a two-shot swing.

The second time came at No. 14. After falling behind by one shot with a bogey on the previous hole, Simpson birdied from 20 feet while Stewart bogeyed. The lead grew to two shots when Stewart ran a 60-foot putt for birdie 15 feet past the cup, then missed for par coming back.

"I was just trying to play good, solid golf with the lead," said Simpson, who put his drive at 16 into the fairway for the first time in three days. "But the three-putt on 16 and the tee shot on 17 did me in."

Said Stewart: "I know he was giving it everything he had and so was I. It was a real grind. When I was two shots down after 15 holes I didn't quit. I think it goes to show that if I ever quit again, I'm an idiot because funny things can happen on the way to the clubhouse."

Or on the 16th hole at Hazeltine. If there was a hole which turned the playoff in Stewart's favor, it was the 384-yard par-4. It is considered the toughest hole on the course, featuring a tree hanging over the right side of the fairway and a green butting up to a lake. Yesterday, the pin was set at the back of the green.

Stewart left his drive short of the tree, but with enough room to shoot for the green. After Simpson put his approach on the lower tier of the green, Stewart had no choice. He went for the pin, flew an 8-iron over the tree and 20 feet from the hole. He made the putt.

"The only thing I could say was that it came at the right time," said Stewart, who had left an 18-footer on the previous hole hanging on the lip of the cup.

When he took the lead at 17, Stewart strode confidently to the 18th tee. But he put his drive into a fairway bunker, and when he got there ready to hit his next shot, he heard a walkie-talkie off in the distance. He stepped away from his ball.

"I heard someone saying, 'Get the pin set for the playoff, let's get the pin to No. 1,' " Stewart recalled. "Hearing that, standing in ready to hit that shot, I said to myself, 'There will be no playoff.' "

As things turned out, the playoff wouldn't go sudden death for the second straight year. Simpson, whose approach from the rough hit the green and rolled off, chipped out a little too strong. His ball skidded nine feet past the cup and he missed the putt for par. Stewart made a five-footer for posterity.

"I was telling myself, 'You have to be a champion and make that putt,' " he said.

A joyful celebration that began with his caddie was followed by a tearful one with his wife and daughter. In the moments afterward, Simpson sought Stewart out to offer his congratulations. Asked what Stewart told him, Simpson laughed. Thanks," he said.

Considering what happened here yesterday, it seemed appropriate. Winning the U.S. Open is no small achievement. But winning it the way Payne Stewart did was no small gift.

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