OAKMONT, Pa. -- Never before has there been a better argument against the United States Golf Association's often criticized 18-hole playoff format for its national championship.
A poor performance by those trying to win the U.S. Open playoff yesterday turned into sudden-death at Oakmont Country Club, but not before a long, painful vigil. For all but a few brief moments toward the end of regulation, things got pretty ugly. Welcome to Choke-mont, where Ernie Els did not so much win the 94th Open as survive it.
In an agonizing match that took more than five hours to play and less than five minutes to forget, the 24-year-old South African won his first major championship when PGA Tour journeyman Loren Roberts fittingly bogeyed the second extra playoff hole. Els then closed out the match with a 3 1/2 -foot par.
Els and Roberts had finished the first 18 holes in 3-over-par 74, the highest over-par score in a playoff since the format was adopted in 1946, and four shots better than Colin Montgomerie of Scotland. After both players parred the par-4 10th hole, Roberts narrowly missed a 25-footer on the par-4 11th hole to save par.
"I said to Colin a couple of times, 'We're not playing very well,' " recalled Els, whose first PGA Tour victory brought him a $320,000 prize and confirmation as the game's rising international star. "It was just good enough."
It was good enough to make Els the first foreign-born player to win the Open since Australia's David Graham in 1981 and only the third to do it since 1927. It was good enough to make Els the first player to make the Open his first PGA Tour victory since Jerry Pate in 1976. It was good enough for Els to become the third-youngest player to win the Open since World War II.
But for most of another hot and windless day in western Pennsylvania, the play was bad enough to bring groans from the gallery and not-so-subtle putdowns from ABC television analyst Peter Alliss, who said after a miserable front nine that included DTC six bogeys, three double bogeys, one triple bogey and only five birdies, "I've never seen three cards like that on a lovely day."
All three players won the sympathies of weekend hackers everywhere.
* Roberts took the first lead of the round with a bogey on the second hole because Montgomerie had doubled it and Els had tripled it after bogeying the first hole. It was the first of three double bogeys for Montgomerie in the first 11 holes. Roberts then surrendered his two-shot lead with a double bogey at the par-4 fifth hole.
"We got off to a terrible start," Els said. "I think we were all pretty nervous on the first tee."
Said Montgomerie, 30: "Nerves had nothing to do with it."
* In the first five holes, only four of a possible 15 shots reached the green in regulation and seven drives stayed in the fairway. On the front nine, 12 of 27 greens were reached in regulation and 11 of 21 fairways. Roberts and Els were 2-over at the turn, and Montgomerie was 6-over after being 9-under on the front side during the first four rounds.
"Loren played the steadiest of anyone because we were all over the place," said Els, who hit only seven fairways and 11 greens in regulation.
* The first time all three players reached the green in regulation on the same hole came at the 195-yard par-3 fourth. All three were within six feet of the cup, but Montgomerie hit a 4-footer eight feet by and missed coming back. Els missed a 5-footer, and Roberts made a 3-footer.
It briefly gave Roberts the lead again, but Els came back with a birdie on the 431-yard par-4 seventh. With Montgomerie fading quickly, it became match play between Els and Roberts, who either held or shared the lead until the final putt. He had some chances to put some distance on Els, but couldn't take advantage.
Asked which hole he would like to take back, Roberts didn't hesitate. "The three-putt [for bogey] at 16 today," said Roberts, who missed a 4-footer for par.
"I really didn't think it was that hard of a two-putt. I should have been able to make it."
Els was the one making crucial putts to save par. The biggest was an 18-footer on the par-3 13th after his tee shot fell into a bunker. After chipping to a foot in order to save par at 14, Els then made a 6-footer for par at 15. After Roberts birdied 17 from 15 feet, Els made another 6-footer for birdie on top of him.
But after forcing a sudden-death playoff by making a 10-footer for par at 18, after both players parred the first extra hole, Roberts couldn't quite keep it going. He pushed his drive into the rough. He put his approach into a greenside bunker. And then came the long putt to save par, the ball hitting the left edge before spinning out.
"Believe it or not, I am happy to be here," said Roberts, 38, who put up a brave front despite the disappointment of coming close to his first ma
jor championship in his 13-year career. "My putter got me here the last three days, but it let me down a little bit today."
Els closed out his post-match news conference with a plea not usually heard from the new U.S. Open champion, or any other world-class player, for that matter. It was totally unsolicited.
"Don't write too much nasty stuff tomorrow about our game today," he said. "I know we didn't play well."
6* As they say, from the mouths of babes.