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Stewart Wearing His Minus-Fours

From Associated Press

Tom Lehman knows how difficult it is to close out a U.S. Open. Three times he has failed. At The Olympic Club on Thursday, others went to finishing school.

Lehman handled it, making three birdies in the last four holes for a 68.

Payne Stewart was up to the task, closing birdie-birdie-birdie to take the first-round lead at four-under-par 66.

And Mark Carnevale managed to make a spectacular birdie on No. 17 to slip in between Stewart and Lehman with a 67.

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But many others failed the test, letting good rounds slip away over the final holes.

“That’s the beauty of the U.S. Open,” David Duval said after he made four bogeys in the final eight holes and shot a 75. “You’re never so happy as when you’re done. There’s no letup.”

Tiger Woods made bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 and shot a 74. Steve Pate was two-under with three holes to play but finished bogey-bogey-double bogey and shot a 72. Tom Kite let a two-under round slip away with a double bogey on No. 16.

And even Joe Durant, who shot a 69, finished with bogeys on two of the last three holes.

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“You know coming here that par is going to be a really good score,” Stewart said. “I took advantage of some breaks out there today, and that’s what you have to do in the U.S. Open.”

Among his breaks were a 12-foot putt to save par on No. 5 and a 15-foot par-saver on the ninth hole. He also made all three of his closing birdies from out of the rough when he was fortunate enough to get good lies.

Lingering three shots off the lead were John Daly, Jesper Parnevik and Jeff Maggert at 69, one stroke under par.

And while precious few players could get under par, a bunch of big names put up some big numbers, including Jim Furyk at 74 and Ernie Els at 75, the highest of his 20 U.S. Open rounds.

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PGA Championship winner Davis Love III, who is struggling with a bad back, shot a 41 on the back nine to finish with a 78.

Colin Montgomerie was at par 70, along with Andrew Magee, Masters champion Mark O’Meara and 19-year-old amateur Matt Kuchar.

British Open winner Justin Leonard was at 71 along with Phil Mickelson, while Fred Couples and Lee Westwood were both at 72.

Casey Martin, the first player to ride in a cart at the U.S. Open, made a par on his first hole, although it started with a drive in the left rough. Just after leaving the tee, he nearly ran over a tournament official with his cart.

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Martin was among those still on the course and was even par through nine holes.

Lehman was carried along by a wildly supportive gallery clearly aware that he has played in the final group in the last three U.S. Opens only to finish third, second and third.

“The galleries were yelling, ‘Come on, Tom. Win it.”’ Lehman said. “I just want to put the ball in play and forget about winning until the 72nd hole. If I can keep playing it this way and stroking it the way I’m stroking it, I like my chances.”

Stewart played like he did in 1989, when he won the PGA Championship, and in 1991, when he won the U.S. Open.

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Wearing his trademark plus-fours, he raised his putter in triumph and punched his right fist through the air when a 12-foot birdie fell into the cup on the final hole.

“It really was spectacular,” Stewart said of his finish. “4-3-3 is pretty much unheard of on those last three holes.”

No one had made a birdie on the 468-yard 17th hole when Stewart rolled in a 45-foot putt that seemed to take forever to wiggle across the green.

Stewart, who has won only once on the PGA Tour since the 1991 U.S. Open, stared in disbelief when the ball disappeared into the cup. Then, he did a wiggling dance of his own to celebrate.

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“That hole is a par five,” Stewart said after he needed a driver and a two-iron to get to the green. “On the scorecard it says I made a birdie, but that was an eagle in my mind.”

Carnevale got to three under with a long iron from 204 yards on No. 17 to within inches of the hole.

“I got a little nervous out there,” Carnevale said. “It’s been a tough year for me.”

Carnevale, 38, is playing in only his second U.S. Open and has never won on the PGA Tour. He has made only five cuts in 13 tournaments this year and has won less than $20,000.

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The U.S. Golf Assn., which came into the Open threatening to ban high-tech clubs, didn’t have to take the driver out of Daly’s bag. The course did it instead.

Playing with no driver because the 6,797-yard course is so short, Daly turned the front nine at two over, then shot a 32 on the back side.

“I’m going to tape it up and leave it in the trunk and take out a three-wood again tomorrow,” Daly said, who compared giving up his driver to giving up drinking.

“The fairways are just too narrow here,” he said.

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Cruising along at two under through eight holes, Woods put his drive on No. 9 in the fairway and his second shot 40 feet from the pin. Four putts later, he had a double bogey--his fourth in the last two years at the Open.

“I’m not in that bad of shape,” Woods insisted, despite being eight strokes back. “I’ll go to the range and go out tomorrow and see what I can do.”

Only Jack Fleck in 1955 trailed by more than eight strokes after the first round of the U.S. Open and came back to win.

But Woods can take comfort in the fact that when Fleck rallied from a nine-stroke deficit in 1955, it was right here at Olympic, when he made a birdie on the final hole to force a playoff with Ben Hogan.

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And if the first round was any indication, those closing holes at Olympic will be the key all week.


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