OAKMONT, Pa. -- He has gone from afterthought to contender, from defending champion without a legitimate chance to win this year's U.S. Open to a player poised to win his second tournament in as many weeks.
Before his victory in last week's Buick Open at Westchester Country Club in the suburbs of New York City, Lee Janzen hadn't won since stunning the golf world across the river at Baltusrol last summer.
When he tees it up today at storied Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh for the start of the 94th Open, Janzen won't have to think about getting the magic back. It returned Sunday, when he made a 50-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole.
It was a putt that helped put Janzen two shots ahead of 24-year-old South African Ernie Els and ultimately gave him his fourth victory on the PGA Tour. It again plugged in the spotlight on Janzen and stopped the endless questions about his nearly yearlong slump.
"For whatever reason why, my game did turn around," Janzen, 29, said here Tuesday. "Eventually I think maybe you just get fed up with what you are doing, that you get to the point where something has to happen."
For Janzen, it began to happen two weeks ago during the Kemper Open at Avenel. After a quiet, but respectable start, Janzen's game picked up steam. A third-round 64 and a final-round 66 helped him finish tied for fourth.
It was Janzen's first top 10 finish since last year's Open. Then came Westchester. And now Oakmont, where he will try to become only the second player in the past 33 years to successfully defend his title and the first ever in seven Opens here.
"It's a great burden," said Curtis Strange, who won back-to-back in 1988 and 1989 to become the first to do it since Ben Hogan. "It's up to the individual. It all depends on what Lee has inside. The thing I remember is how exhausting it is."
Janzen knows all about the burden.
"When you don't play well, you hear people asking what it is wrong with you," said Janzen, who was 99th on the PGA Tour money list going into the Kemper Open, and is now up to 22nd.
"I think it bothers my friends more than it bothered me. They are trying to help me out, give me advice, but I knew eventually it would turn around. I knew it couldn't last forever."
It only seemed that way.
A player many considered one of the tour's rising stars -- even before Baltusrol -- Janzen suddenly found himself as worn out from all the responsibilities of being the Open champion as from his lackluster play. On top of that, Janzen and his wife, Bev, had their first child last October.
Then there was the fiasco when Janzen and his agent tried to get a more lucrative endorsement deal from Founders Club, a California-based manufacturer.
When it wasn't forthcoming, Janzen shopped around and ultimately signed a similar deal to play Hogan irons.
You always hear how winning the U.S. Open is going to be worth a couple of million dollars, but that's not the case," said Janzen, who is still playing Founders Club woods without being paid.
His problems were compounded by not adjusting to the new kind of irons he was signed to play. Perimeter-weighted irons give an average player more margin for error, but don't provide a feel player like Janzen the flexibility needed to work the ball.
The results were disastrous, and Janzen finally went back to more traditional irons during the Kemper. Since making the move, Janzen has been 25-under par in eight rounds, including a third-round 64 at Westchester and two 66s.
"All I did was go back to what I learned all my life," Janzen said. "So it's much easier to go on a course and trust a certain shot that I want to hit or trust my swing. That is really the main difference. I gained a lot of confidence in myself on the course."
As a result of his struggle, Janzen also gained a new perspective. A player who had made swift progress in his first four years on tour -- rising from 115th on the money list as a rookie to seventh last year -- Janzen saw what it was like to start up the mountain again.
"Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to climb back up," he said. "Getting to the top is hard, and staying there might be even harder. But doing it a second time is the hardest of all."
Apparently, Lee Janzen has done that. Just at the right time.
NOTES: Vijay Singh of Fiji became the second player to withdraw because of injury. Singh, who pulled out of last week's tournament because of back problems, was replaced by former U.S. Amateur champion Chris Patton. . . . The USGA announced yesterday that the 1998 Open will be played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco and the 1998 Senior Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Site: Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.
Course: 6,946 yards, par 71.
When: Today through Sunday; 18-hole playoff Monday in event of tie at the end of 72 holes.
Who: 159 of the world's best golfers, including defending champion Lee Janzen, Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and British Open champion Greg Norman. A total of 13 former Open champions have qualified or been given exemptions.
Purse: $1.7 million; $320,000 to winner
Course record: 63, Johnny Miller, 1973 final round.
TV: Today and tomorrow, ESPN, 10:30 a.m to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.; taped highlights, Channels 13, 7, 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 am; Saturday and Sunday, Channels 13, 7, 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.