Open door still ajar for Nicklaus


OAKMONT, Pa. -- After the final round of the 1992 U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus greeted Colin Montgomerie in the television tower behind the 18th green at Pebble Beach.

"Congratulations on winning your first U.S. Open," Nicklaus, who had missed the cut, said on the air to Montgomerie, who had just finished the tournament at even par.

Montgomerie never got the trophy because Tom Kite did, by fighting off gale-force winds and a history of final-round blowups to win his first major championship.

But Nicklaus' remark was etched into Montgomerie's brain.

"I wasn't the only one who believed him," recalled Montgomerie, who wound up finishing third behind Kite and Jeff Sluman. "When I finished, I could see no other result because the conditions were getting a lot worse."

Nicklaus has yet to concede the 94th U.S. Open here at Oakmont Country Club to Montgomerie, but the four-time Open champion and the 30-year-old Scot certainly look as if they will play a significant role in determining its outcome.

Montgomerie charged into the lead with a brilliant, 6-under-par 65 in yesterday's second round. With a two-round total of 6-under 136, he is two shots ahead of three-time Open champion Hale Irwin, as well as veterans John Cook and David Edwards. Cook and Edwards climbed into the hunt with 65s of their own.

With a 1-under 70 to go to 3-under 139, Nicklaus is three strokes behind along with Jeff Maggert. Four players, including two-time champion Curtis Strange, are four shots back. Another former champion, first-round leader Tom Watson, is in a group of four players at 1-under 141 after struggling to a second-round 73.

But the spotlight is squarely on the 54-year-old Nicklaus. On the same day that Arnold Palmer said an emotional goodbye, the man many consider the best ever to play the game continued to say an unexpected, but certainly welcome, hello.

"I made the cut," joked Nicklaus. "It's the first one this year [in seven events on the PGA Tour]. I'll finally get some official money. Also, if I play a good round of golf tomorrow [today], I'll have a chance of winning the U.S. Open. If I get myself in position on Sunday, I think I have a chance to win."

It has been 14 years since Nicklaus tied the record of four Open titles set by Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan. It has been eight years since Nicklaus silenced the skeptics who thought he was finished by winning the Masters, his record 18th major title as a pro.

Though he hasn't contended this far into a major in a while, Nicklaus also has not played this consistently well in the past BTC couple of years. He didn't even seem too perturbed that he gave away a couple of shots after getting to 5-under yesterday.

"I played two pretty good rounds of golf," said Nicklaus. "I hope I have played my bad round of golf today as far as hitting the ball. I think I'd like to play a little bit better than I did today."

In his case, Montgomerie knows that probably wouldn't be possible. Except for his lone bogey on the par-3 eighth hole, Montgomerie was nearly perfect with five birdies and an eagle on the par-4 ninth hole.

"That's perhaps as good as I could do," said Montgomerie, who is currently second to reigning Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal in the European Tour's Order of Merit. "That's about my limit -- and a lot of people's limit on a course like that."

A course that produced only nine sub-par scores in Thursday's opening round was softened by some overnight rain and made a bit less stifling by diminished humidity yesterday. It proved a lot gentler, yielding 29 rounds under par. Montgomerie, Cook and Edwards equaled the lowest score in relation to par in the Open's second round.

The low scores brought a cast of thousands -- well, a dozen at least -- into contention. Among those at even-par 142 is Greg Norman, still looking for that first major on American grass. In the group at 143 is former Masters champion Fred Couples.

"It [the easier conditions] could let a few more guys in," said Irwin, 49.

Irwin played his part, too. It came after birdies at Nos. 4 and 5 were followed by a 10-foot eagle at the par-5 ninth, pushing Irwin to 6-under for the tournament and three shots ahead of the field. "Then," Irwin said, "I went to lunch."

Irwin's lunch break was costly, resulting in a double-bogey at the difficult par-4 10th and a three-putt bogey at the long par-5 12th. Though he recovered with a birdie on the next hole, Irwin three-putted again at 15 before salvaging the round with another birdie on the final hole.

It opened the door, first for Cook, then for Nicklaus, and finally for Montgomerie. But Montgomerie is certainly experienced enough to know that he hasn't yet won the Open. And Nicklaus is shrewd enough not to make any more premature predictions, especially when he is still in contention.

Yesterday, Montgomerie and Nicklaus met in the television tower behind the 18th green at Oakmont. When someone wanted to know if any words passed between them, Montgomerie smiled.

E9 "He said, 'Well played' this time," Montgomerie said.

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