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It’s Els Above All Else

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How do you win the U.S. Open? The Ernie Els method was to par the last four holes, then hold on while everyone close to him took off in a full-scale retreat.

Els, a 27-year-old South African who lives in Florida, won his second U.S. Open in four years Sunday at Congressional Country Club, where he survived a four-way duel featuring missed putts, drowned golf balls and enough pressure to melt every iron in his bag.

With a shock of red hair stuck beneath his cap and working hard on a piece of chewing gum, Els directed his golf ball into the 18th hole from five feet away to secure a final-round 69, a four-round total of four-under-par 276 and a one-shot victory over Colin Montgomerie of Scotland.

“I was really, really tense over that putt,” Els said.

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And it wasn’t because President Clinton was in the audience. A second Open title is not something to be lightly regarded, Els said.

“You’re going to a different class now,” he said. “A lot of guys have won one major. I’ve won two now. You know, you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself, but I’m very happy.

“I’ve got two now and I’m looking for more.”

The 1994 U.S. Open champion, Els won when his peers took turns eliminating themselves.

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Tom Lehman chose the most dramatic route. Lehman, who began the fourth round with a two-stroke lead over Jeff Maggert and Els, was only one stroke behind Els at the 17th hole.

Then Lehman swung his seven-iron and sent the ball glancing off the side of a bank and into the water. He could only put his hand to his head in disbelief.

“I was just feeling an incredible amount of pain,” Lehman said. “That really hurt. My chances to win basically went in the lake right there. And I knew it.”

Lehman’s last-round of 73 dropped him into third place at two-under 278.

Montgomerie’s chance also ended at 17. His six-iron landed in the rough at the back of the green, and after his chip he was faced with a five-foot putt for par.

He waited nearly five minutes before putting, apparently distracted by the huge crowd that seemed even bigger and noisier because of the closeness of the 17th and 18th greens.

He said there was nothing wrong with the putt, but the ball rolled right and stopped a foot away from the hole.

“It was breaking into the hole and it decided to go the other way at the end,” Montgomerie said.

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Montgomerie and others will remember this as nothing more than another close call in a major. He lost to Els in a playoff in the 1994 Open at Oakmont and to Steve Elkington in the 1995 PGA at Riviera.

“It’s gotten me down, this majors business,” Montgomerie said. “I know if I keep knocking on the door enough, the door will open one day.”

Maggert’s demise was equally painful. Tied for the lead with the other three through 12 holes, he bogeyed Nos. 13 and 16, then double-bogeyed the 17th when he three-putted from five feet. He three-putted No. 18 for another bogey.

And so Els persevered, doing whatever was needed to get by, such as chipping in from the front of the green for a birdie on No. 10 and coaxing in a 10-footer to save par on No. 14.

His drive toward another major title began at 7 a.m., when he played his last five holes left over from Saturday’s third round. That he finished that one par-birdie-birdie-birdie-par got Els pointed in the right direction before he headed out for one final, 18-hole push.

“You know, three years ago when I won this tournament, it was like a war out there,” he said. “And I knew it was going to be the same today.”

He was right about that.

Els never was more than two shots out of the lead, even though he bogeyed Nos. 6 and 9 when he found the rough. His 20-foot birdie putt on No. 7 and another birdie on No. 8 kept him moving forward.

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Lehman’s direction was different. This was the third consecutive U.S. Open he had not won, even though he had at least a share of the lead going into the fourth round.

As far as misery goes, even Montgomerie can’t touch that.

But at the end, Lehman still had one last chance to catch Els. Two shots down at the 18th tee, Lehman needed to ace the 190-yard finishing hole to catch him.

He bounced the ball onto the green eight feet from the pin. It was close, but Els had won and he accepted congratulations in the roped-off area near the 18th green.

It was a close race, but a lost one, Lehman said.

“You just don’t have many great chances and I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had a lot of chances and Monty has had a lot of chances. I’ve won one and he hasn’t won any.

“I think we each should have won more, but that’s part of what really hurts . . . knowing that I’m lacking something . . . and Monty maybe is feeling the same thing.”

The silver U.S. Open trophy found its way back into Ernie Els’ hands again. That’s one thing he isn’t lacking.

* NOTEBOOK: At the end of his 41st Open, Jack Nicklaus says he’s playing as well as he has in 10 years. C10

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE FINISH LINE

276 (-4)--$465,000

Ernie Els: 71-67-69-69

277 (-3)--$275,000

Colin Montgomerie: 65-76-67-69

278 (-2)--$172,828

Tom Lehman: 67-70-68-73

281 (+1)--$120,454

Jeff Maggert: 73-66-68-74

282 (+2)--$79,875

Tommy Tolles: 74-67-69-72

Jay Haas: 73-69-68-72

Bob Tway: 71-71-70-70

Olin Browne: 71-71-69-71

Jim Furyk: 74-68-69-71

3 tied at 283

* COMPLETE SCORES: C10

* LEADERS’ SCORECARDS: C10

* PAST WINNERS: C10

MULTIPLE WINNERS

*--*

PLAYER TITLES YEARS Willie Anderson 4 1901, 1903, 1904, 1905 Bobby Jones 4 1923, 1926, 1929, 1930 Ben Hogan 4 1948, 1950, 1951, 1953 Jack Nicklaus 4 1962, 1967, 1972, 1980 Hale Irwin 3 1974, 1979, 1990 Alex Smith 2 1906, 1910 John McDermott 2 1911, 1912 Walter Hagen 2 1914, 1919 Gene Sarazen 2 1922, 1932 Ralph Guldahl 2 1937, 1938 Cary Middlecoff 2 1949, 1956 Julius Boros 2 1952, 1963 Billy Casper 2 1959, 1966 Lee Trevino 2 1968, 1971 Andy North 2 1978, 1985 Curtis Strange 2 1988, 1989 Ernie Els 2 1994, 1997

*--*


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