SAN FRANCISCO -- The Olympic Club has not been kind to front-runners in the 43 years since the U.S. Open first visited the venerable Lake Course. What happened to legends Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer as well as to Tom Watson happened yesterday to Payne Stewart.
And what happened to Jack Fleck and Billy Casper, not to mention Scott Simpson, happened to Lee Janzen.
Leading by four shots coming into the final round of the 98th Open and by two shots at the turn, Stewart failed to hold the lead he had owned since Thursday and Janzen stormed though to win by a shot. A 2-under-par 68 put Janzen at even-par 280, the only player in the field to finish at par.
"I'm proud of myself. I didn't think I could win it," a teary-eyed Janzen said moments after Stewart narrowly missed an 18-footer on the 18th green to tie. "Somehow, I did."
It was the same result that occurred five years ago at Baltusrol, where Janzen held off Stewart as they played head-to-head in the last group. This time, Janzen took advantage of playing two groups in front of Stewart and put the pressure on by making three birdies between the eighth and 13th holes to pull even.
Janzen took the lead when Stewart bogeyed the 186-yard 13th hole after his tee shot went through the green and into the rough. Stewart briefly tied Janzen at even par when he made a 15-foot birdie putt at the 422-yard par-4 14th hole, but then bogeyed the 609-yard 16th after failing to get up-and-down from a bunker.
Stewart's last chance came when he missed the 18-footer for birdie on the 347-yard, par-4 18th to force a playoff. The one-shot defeat denied Stewart his second major championship, following his playoff victory over Simpson in the Open at Hazeltine in 1991.
It also prevented him from becoming the first wire-to-wire winner since Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine in 1970.
"I didn't go out and do what it took to win the golf tournament today," said Stewart, 41. "I didn't hit enough fairways or greens. The champion also played an outstanding round of golf. You've got to give Lee Janzen all the credit in the world."
Janzen was the only player in the last 13 twosomes yesterday to shoot under par. Bob Tway shot 3-over 73 to finish four shots back at 4-over 284. Nick Price also shot 73 and finished five shots back. Tom Lehman, playing with Stewart in the final group, never got within three shots and finished with a disappointing 75 and tied with Steve Stricker at 6-over 286.
The victory, worth $535,000, was the eighth of Janzen's nine-year career and came two months after he shot a final-round 79 to blow a three-shot lead going into the final round of this year's Tournament Players Championship.
It was also his first victory since the Sprint International in 1995, when Janzen won three times and finished third on the money list.
The golfing gods might have been smiling on Janzen, 33, yesterday. After making bogeys on two of the first three holes to fall seven shots behind Stewart, and making a birdie on the 438-yard, par-4 fourth hole, Janzen hit his drive on the 457-yard par-4 fifth into a cyprus tree. The ball stayed in the tree momentarily.
"I had just made birdie to get back in it, and now I'm thinking I could make a double bogey," he said.
After starting back to the tee to hit a provisional, Janzen was informed that a gust of wind had knocked the ball out of the tree and into the rough. He put his approach on the fringe and chipped in for par from 20 feet.
It was a similar circumstance that propelled him to his first Open victory. Leading Stewart by two shots going into the final round in 1993, Janzen hit a 5-iron approach on the 10th hole at Baltusrol though a couple of branches on a tree. The ball found the green and Janzen two-putted for par.
Asked if he thought about the coincidence, Janzen said: "I didn't think about it until later. I thought, 'Payne Stewart, the Open, a ball in the tree, making a par, where have you heard this before?' "
After getting a number of breaks the previous two days, Stewart met with some misfortune when his drive on the 416-yard 12th rolled into a sand-filled divot in the fairway. Undecided which club to hit, Stewart came up short and in a bunker. He made the first of two straight bogeys.
Stewart, who had been put on the clock earlier for slow play, was given a "bad time" by U.S. Golf Association official Tom Meeks. It meant that another warning would result in a one-shot penalty. Stewart wouldn't use that as an excuse for a bogey on the next hole, but he was clearly upset, because he and Lehman were playing in the last group of the day.
"I didn't feel any different out there, but, in this situation, your swing tightens up," Stewart said.