Els, Roberts bogey into playoff


OAKMONT, Pa. -- Nobody won the 94th U.S. Open yesterday at Oakmont Country Club. Instead, Ernie Els of South Africa and American Loren Roberts lost chances to win down the stretch while Colin Montgomerie of Scotland benefited from their mistakes. In other words, they tied.

Welcome to golf's version of the World Cup.

Instead of crowning the 24-year-old Els as the game's next megastar, or talking about the long road back from oblivion for Roberts, the Open has its first three-way playoff since 1963. The three players will go 18 holes -- or to sudden death in case of another tie -- beginning at 10 a.m. this morning.

It was a blight to the finish last night. Bogeys by Els on two of the last three holes, one by Roberts at 18 and two clutch putts by the previously fading Montgomerie brought them all to a four-round score of 5-under-par 279. The playoff was secured when Els snap-hooked his final drive on 18 near the 15th tee, chipped his second shot into a sandy divot and then made a 4-footer for bogey.

"Somebody said that the Open isn't won, that somebody backs into it and I kind of backed it up today," said Roberts, a 38-year-old journeyman who won his first PGA Tour event earlier this year. "It was a classic U.S. Open."

Or was it?

Roberts could have won it outright a couple of times yesterday. After a bogey at 16 cost him sole possession of the lead, Roberts put his approach to the 452-yard 18th over the green. His pitch ran five feet past the cup. But with the possibility of his first major title tightening its invisible grip, Roberts badly pushed his par putt.

"It was a terrible putt," said Roberts, who had started the round three shots behind Els and finished with a 1-under-par 70. "The ball didn't roll good because I hit it so poorly. I looked at the scoreboard and saw that Ernie hadn't birdied 17. I could have kicked myself. I could have won the Open with a 4 1/2 - to 5-foot putt. But I'm not going to get down about it. I've still got a chance to win tomorrow."

Had Els glanced at the scoreboard before stepping to the 18th tee, he would have played it safe by pulling a 2-iron from his bag. Instead, figuring that he needed birdie to win, Els took his driver and snap-hooked his second straight tee shot. It was the fourth ** time he had badly pulled a drive during an erratic round of 2-over 73.

But unlike his drive at the first hole and another at 17, when he drove his ball in front of supposedly unmovable obstructions and was allowed free drops in each instance, Els couldn't get any relief this time.

Then again, he knew how fortunate he had been. Especially at the first hole, when the USGA gave Els a drop even though the obstruction -- a crane with a TV camera attached -- was moved later in the day. The official who made the ruling later admitted it was incorrect.

"I got two pretty good breaks," said Els, who along with Montgomerie has a chance to become the first foreign-born player to win the Open since Australia's David Graham in 1981. "I was waiting for one at 18, but I was two club lengths away. I think I was riding my luck pretty good all day."

As for his decision to hit driver at the final hole without looking at the scoreboard, Els said, "I didn't know what Loren Roberts did on 18. I thought I needed a birdie. I was just happy to have made the putt [for bogey]. When I was about to play my third shot [from the divot], I was thinking, 'What can be happening to me?' When I made the putt, I thought at least I have a chance to win."

Then there was Montgomerie, who shared the lead with Els at 7-under after 10 holes but had seemingly blown his chance when he made three straight bogeys. He got back to 5-under with a birdie at 14, then made another bogey at 15 after his approach rolled over the green.

But Montgomerie hung in there by saving par from four feet on the par-3 16th hole and climbed to within a shot with a 10-foot birdie on 17. He didn't hit a particularly good approach at 18, but he two-putted from 30 feet for par and 1-under 70.

When he went to the ABC-TV booth, he figured, as he would say later, "I was one light."

Montgomerie, though, was one lucky 30-year-old Scot. First Roberts gagged on his putt -- "I'm not going to lie, I had trouble getting the putter back," he said later -- and then came the two bad drives by Els. Though his gamble to drive the green at the 315-yard 17th didn't work, a drop in front of the bleachers gave him a clear shot to the flag. He wound up making a 10-footer there to save par.

When Els made the putt for bogey at 18, the playoff was set among two players who have never won one and one player, Roberts, who has never played in one during his 13-year PGA Tour career. Montgomerie has lost his two previous playoffs, while Els has lost his only other playoff.

All three like the USGA's format of another 18 holes -- and then sudden death -- instead of just the sudden-death format used by every other tournament around the world except for the British Open, which has a five-hole aggregate score and then sudden death if needed.

Els and Roberts believe it's a fair test, while Montgomerie likes it for another reason. "Being 0-2 in sudden death," he said, "I feel like I can go out and triple- or quadruple-bogey a hole and still win."

The way things deteriorated here yesterday, and the way the course is wearing thin under the pounding heat of the past week, expect the worst today.


The leaders . . .

x-Loren Roberts 76-69-64-70-279

x-Ernie Els 69-71-66-73-279

x-C. Montgomerie 71-65-73-70-279

. . . and selected followers

Curtis Strange 70-70-70-70-280

John Cook 73-65-73-71-282

Greg Norman 71-71-69-72-283

Tom Watson 68-73-68-74-283

Fred Couples 72-71-69-74-286

Hale Irwin 69-69-71-78-287

Seve Ballesteros 72-72-70-73-287

Jack Nicklaus 69-70-77-76-292

xIn 18-hole playoff today

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