After playing in minor key, a major finish

June 19, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- He bogeyed the first hole on the first day of the tournament. Went on to bogey five more holes that day. Hit only six of 18 greens in regulation. That's how Corey Pavin won the U.S. Open.

He was six shots off the lead after 36 holes, as close to the cut mark as to the leader. Still three shots off the lead after 54 holes, out of sight and mind, so displeased with his game that he spent an hour on the practice tee after the round. That's how Corey Pavin won the U.S. Open.

In the final round yesterday at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, he bogeyed the third hole and found himself five shots behind with 13 holes to play. In big trouble. All sorts of people above him on the leader board.

But he kept lurking. Hung around. And then, just when he had to, he stopped going south on the leader board and started north, with a birdie at No. 9, another at No. 12 and another at No. 15. And suddenly, after a week in the shadows, a week of lurking, everyone else was looking up at him.

That is how Corey Pavin won the U.S. Open. "It's a thrill beyond words," he said.

The record will show that he won his first major in the final 15 holes. The other contenders all faltered there, where it mattered. Greg Norman played the holes in 2-over par, Tom Lehman in 5-over, Bob Tway in 6-over, Phil Mickelson in 3-over. Pavin? He played them in 3-under.

What the record won't show is that he also won the tournament on Thursday, his bad day, when he played poorly enough to shoot himself out of contention, but didn't. That day, with conditions as benign as they would be all week, he missed 11 fairways, 12 greens, made six bogeys and still lost only two strokes to par. Talk about damage control.

"I was very encouraged after that round," he said yesterday, "to have played so poorly and scored decently. Because I really played bad, no doubt about it. But I chipped great and saved about 10 pars."

A 1-under 69 on Friday kept him within reach of Norman, the second-round leader, and a 71 in the nightmarish, windblown third round drew him even closer. Saturday's round was another minor chipping miracle; he missed half the fairways and greens, yet found himself only three shots off the lead after the round.

"But I still wasn't playing well," he said. "So I went to the practice tee and spent a long time. Made an adjustment, moved closer to the ball. It felt right. And I had a lot of confidence today. A lot of control."

Indeed. After a bogey on No. 3 yesterday, he didn't make another blunder. You want to see the blueprint for how to win the Open on the last day? Pavin laid it down.

He saved four pars, getting up and down from off the green on Nos. 10 and 13, and sinking 5-foot putts for par on Nos. 7 and 17. And then, while the rest of the field struggled to make pars in the wind, he made three huge approach shots that led to birdies.

On No. 9, he dropped a 6-iron within 6 feet of the hole and made the putt. On No. 12, he put an 8-iron within 12 feet and made the putt. And finally, on No. 15, he put a wedge within 12 feet and made the putt. That last birdie put him in the lead for the first time all week. On the 69th hole.

"You bet I knew I went ahead there," he said. "I'm a big scoreboard watcher. It was quite a feeling. I knew I would be in good shape if I could just make pars."

As it turned out, he had excellent chances for birdies at Nos. 16 and 18, and blew both. But it didn't matter. The other contenders were too busy going south, struggling just to make pars.

No one was less surprised at the outcome than Norman, who was typically gracious after losing seven strokes to par in the last two rounds.

"Corey is one of the few guys out here with all the shots," Norman said. "A lot of guys are one-dimensional. They can only play one way. Corey can play a hook, a slice, a high shot, a low shot, whatever it takes. And in this wind, it was going to take someone with all the shots to win."

Since Tom Kite's Open victory three years ago, Pavin had walked around with the label as the best golfer in the world never to have won a major title.

"It's something that bothered me more than it's bothered anyone else on the planet," he said.

No more.

"Welcome to the [major-winning] club," Norman told Pavin when they shook hands after the round.

He couldn't have made things much harder on himself, starting poorly, just hanging on, still far behind early yesterday. Norman carried the tournament, leading over three days, hogging the headlines. But Pavin was always lurking, always just close enough to stay in contention. And then, suddenly, almost with a snap of his fingers, he was out of reach.

You have heard of other golfers winning other big tournaments that way, with a breathless sprint to the finish, a knockout punch at the very end. No one will ever do it more deftly than Corey Pavin at Shinnecock.

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