BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- Is Payne Stewart burdened by the prospect of leading the U.S. Open?
Stewart staggered in at the end of the second round yesterday with ugly bogeys on two of the last three holes that shrunk his lead from three shots to one and let half of the state of Michigan survive the cut, but the answer to the aforementioned question is an emphatic no.
In the last 19 U.S. Opens, the only champion to be atop the leader board after every round was one Payne Stewart, in 1991.
"You always like to be leading," said Stewart. "There are a lot of people that have a chance to win this tournament, and I'm one of them."
The man in plus-fours has won only one tournament in the past five years, but his 1-over 71 left him at 2-under and with sole possession of the second-round lead at Oakland Hills Country Club. He'll go off in the last pairing today with Greg Norman, who shrugged off allergies and the questions about his Masters flop with a 66, a score no one bettered in the first two rounds.
Ernie Els (67) and Woody Austin (72), who are tied for second with Norman at 1-under, will be in the previous pairing, and by the time the only guys under par get on the course, 104 other players will have scuffed up greens that are already torture at 8 a.m.
Davis Love III (69) and Steve Jones, who matched Norman's 66, lead the five men at even. The nine players at 1-over include John Daly, who had a 69, and past champions Scott Simpson and Tom Watson, who had 71s. Colin Montgomerie (72) is in the group at 2-over. And defending champion Corey Pavin (70) and Masters champion Nick Faldo (71) are lurking at 3-over among 40 players within five strokes of Stewart.
"They [the contenders] know that patience is a virtue," Stewart said, and his was tested throughout a round that included four birdies, five bogeys and one bloodied spectator.
After a bogey at No. 8, Stewart waited nearly 15 minutes to tee off on No. 9, the 220-yard par-3, where a double-bogey marred his first-round 67. He was able to keep his cool, and knocked a 2-iron to within 3 feet for a birdie to get to 5-under.
Stewart bogeyed the next two holes, but birdied No. 12 and was 4-under when he headed to No. 16, the dogleg right over water. His 6-iron approach went left, unfortunately, and on to the head ++ off a gentleman who was waiting to see Faldo tee off on No. 17.
Stewart's chip was slowed by a hickory tree and landed in a bunker. He answered that bogey by hitting the stick on No. 17, a par-3, but was back in trouble on 18, when he yanked another approach left, this time a 2-iron, over the green for another bogey.
Stewart had 17 pars in the first two rounds compared to 18 for the troubled Ian Baker-Finch, who exited at 25-over. Does that kind of erratic play last? Aren't you supposed to grind out in a U.S. Open?
"I would prefer to be making a lot of birdies, because you can eliminate the bogeys," said Stewart, who showed his once-famous temper on one occasion, when he shouted at photographers for clicking during a swing by Bob Tway on No. 10.
"That's a recent phenomenon," Stewart said "I've just decided that life is way too short to be miserable after a bad golf shot. This is what I do for a living, and I love it, but it is not life or death. It's a game, so I'm trying to enjoy myself more. I don't smile for the gallery, but I am enjoying what I do out there."
For the last two months, Norman has repeatedly explained that his collapse at the Masters didn't leave him miserable. He rebounded nicely from an opening-round 73, holding an 8-iron from 140 yards for eagle on No. 16.
"Of course, that did a lot for my morale," Norman said. "I wasn't concerned about the number [his first-round score]. Anyone who has played in an Open realizes that even if you're six back with one round to go, you still have a chance to do pretty good. I figured if I was at 1-over after today's round, that would put me in good stead for the weekend."
Is Norman trying to quiet the detractors, who say he'll never win a major on U.S. soil after his collapse at the Masters?
"I knew I could do it," Norman said of yesterday's round. "I'm not out there to prove anyone wrong. I am not out there to do anything along those lines. I just go out there to play. I cherish the opportunity of winning any golf tournament I play in. This week is no different than last week and no different than what it will be like at Hartford."
Birdies will be a tad easier to come by, however, at the Canon Greater Hartford Open in two weeks.
Ernie Els, the strapping South African who won the Open two years ago, is poised for a run at another. Austin, who shared the first-round lead, parred the back nine to join the tie at second place. Jones, who had one bogey and five pars, is at even with Davis Love III, New Zealander Frank Nobilo and Scotland's Sam Torrance.
They'll all be chasing Stewart, who'll be playing under the glare of a late afternoon national television audience, when the dew has departed, the wind has picked up and the greens will have been cooked by a day's worth of sun and spike marks.
It's all right. Stewart's been there, done that.
Pub Date: 6/15/96
The leader . . .
Payne Stewart 67-71138
, . . . and selected followers
Greg Norman 73-66139
Ernie Els 72-67139
Woody Austin 67-72139
Davis Love III 71-69140
John Daly 72-69141
Tom Watson 70-71141
Nick Faldo 72-71143
Corey Pavin 73-70143
Jack Nicklaus 72-74146