It's an Open-and-putt case

Stewart overtakes Mickelson by 1 to win second U.S. Open title

June 21, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PINEHURST, N.C. -- The greens of Pinehurst No. 2 were the centerpiece of the 99th U.S. Open, the crowned jewels that Scottish designer Donald Ross laid out nearly a century ago.

They will be remembered for even more now.

They are where Payne Stewart won the second Open championship of his career early last night. They are also where Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods lost their chances for a first Open title.

Stewart, 42, made three straight putts down the stretch, one bigger than the next, to overtake Mickelson by one shot and hold off Woods and reigning PGA champion Vijay Singh by two.

As the final putt, a 15-footer to save par, dropped into the hole, Stewart thrust his fist in the air twice as his caddie, Mike Hicks, jumped into his arms like Yogi Berra did after Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

A round of even-par 70 gave Stewart a four-round total of 1-under-par 279 and the victory that eluded him in last year's Open at the Olympic Club, where he blew a four-shot lead in the final round.

"I said, `Give yourself a chance. You've always wanted a putt to win the U.S. Open, and now you've got it,' " Stewart said. "I can't describe the feeling that went through my body when the putt went in that hole."

The two previous putts had put Stewart in position to win.

After making a 25-footer to save par on the par-4 16th hole and draw even with Mickelson, who had missed a 5-footer for par, Stewart took the lead with a 3-foot birdie on the par-3 17th.

Conversely, Mickelson had missed an 8-footer for birdie on 17 and then a 15-footer for birdie on 18. It was the closest Mickelson, 29, has come to winning his first major championship.

"I felt with three holes to go, I was in control of the tournament because I was leading and it's so difficult to make birdies," said Mickelson, who also shot even-par 70. "Payne came through with that little extra on a couple of putts, and I just ended up missing both of mine."

Woods had made a couple of long birdie putts to stay in the hunt, a 20-footer on the par-4 14th hole to get back to 1-over for the tournament and a 10-footer on the diabolical, 489-yard 16th hole to get back to even par.

But it was two short putts he missed that might have cost him a chance at his second major. Woods three-putted from 15 feet for bogey on the par-4 11th, missing a 2 1/2-footer to save par. He also missed a 4-footer on 17.

As a result, the former Masters champion said he didn't mind seeing Stewart's final putt go in.

"I'm happy for Payne for two reasons," said Woods, who also shot 70. "It was nice to see him come back after last year. From a more selfish standpoint, it would have been tough to sleep the next few nights."

Said Singh, whose 1-under 69 was the only subpar round among the leaders: "It's very disappointing. I played good golf all week long, but in the end, I came up just a little bit short."

Woods would come away with what was by far his best showing in an Open, a performance reminiscent of his third-place finish at last year's British Open. Mickelson's disappointment was dulled by other events in his life.

Asked if the expected arrival of his first child within the next couple of weeks would soften the hurt, Mickelson said: "I think it will. It will be a bigger change in my life than had I won."

The win will likely not change Stewart's life much, except that it might help him regain the endorsement contracts he lost when his career faltered after he won his first Open championship at Hazeltine in 1991.

What it could change is Stewart's reputation for not having the toughness to withstand a tense battle in a major. He gained that image after fading down the stretch in the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock.

It was reinforced last year in San Francisco.

"To question his toughness wouldn't be fair," said Mickelson, who has been similarly criticized throughout his career. "He waits for players to falter and puts himself in position to win tournaments. He did it in the '91 Open and the '89 PGA. Today, he made something happen."

Ohers did falter along the way, most notably David Duval.

After coming into the round three shots behind Stewart, Duval birdied two of the first three holes. But the world's No. 1-ranked player made bogeys on the par-3 sixth and par-4 eighth and had a double bogey on the par-4 ninth.

"I played OK," said Duval, who wound up with a 5-over 75 yesterday, tying for seventh at 7-over 287. "It's probably more [disappointing] than you can imagine. Coming in, I felt good about my chances. With the start I had today, I felt even better."

Stewart got off to a good start himself, with a 10-foot birdie putt on the first hole to build his lead to two strokes. Mickelson cut it to one with a 20-foot birdie on the par-4 seventh and tied for the lead when Stewart bogeyed the par-5 10th.

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