'Journeyman' may peel off label U.S. OPEN NOTEBOOK


OAKMONT, Pa.-- At 24, Ernie Els has a chance to win the U.S. Open. Loren Roberts can remember where he was at the same age.

"I was an assistant pro at Morro Bay, a municipal course in San Luis Obispo [Calif.]," Roberts recalled yesterday. "I was giving lessons on the range, renting carts and making pimento cheese sandwiches."

Roberts, now 38, is far removed from that life. But he hasn't quite separated himself from his next life, that of struggling PGA Tour pro. In fact, he's only a few months removed from it.

Roberts could go from journeyman to late-blooming star if he beats Els and Colin Montgomerie in today's 18-hole sudden-death playoff at Oakmont Country Club for the 94th Open championship.

L Then again, he's accomplished quite a bit already this year:

* His first victory in 13 years on tour, at Bay Hill.

* His first top 10 finish at a major, a tie for fifth at the Masters.

And now the Open.

"When I shot 76 in the opening round, I never thought I'd be in this position," said Roberts, who was nine shots behind second-round leader Montgomerie after 36 holes before climbing into contention with a 64 Saturday. "This has been a great experience."

His performance this year -- he came into the Open fifth on the tour money list -- will give those in charge of writing the press guide something different to say next year about Roberts.

In this year's guide, he is referred to as the hardest-working player on tour. "They put that in there because they didn't have anything else to write," he said.

Two reasons to agonize

It was a frustrating day for former Open champions Hale Irwin and Curtis Strange. But their frustrations were different: Irwin's coming from the way he fell apart, Strange's from how agonizingly close he came.

Irwin, looking to tie the record of four Open titles, came into the final round two shots behind Els before blowing up with a 7-over 78. The 49-year-old Irwin finished well back at 3-over 287.

Strange, the last player to win back-to-back Open championships, made a run with three straight birdies to get to 6-under before finishing one shot behind at 4-under after his fourth consecutive 70.

Said Strange, 39, whose fourth-place finish was his best in a major since his victory in the 1989 Open, "I feel I played really well today. I just didn't play well through the last nine holes.

"I wished someone would get to 6-under so I don't have to think about losing by a shot."

Funk finishes on down note

Former University of Maryland golf coach Fred Funk finished on a disappointing note, with his worst score of the tournament. His 6-over 77 gave Funk, who finished tied for seventh last year at Baltusrol, a total of 12-over 296. He finished tied for 44th.

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