Sixty-three holes into the U.S. Open, Neal Lancaster was having a bit of a motivation problem. Eight over and demoralized by two straight bogeys, he came up with a resolution that would have made Tony Robbins blanch. "I just told myself, Let's go shoot a 42 on this side and get it over with so I can enjoy the rest of the day," Lancaster said.
Instead, he put together the greatest nine holes in Open history. With a six-birdie, no-bogey 29 on the back side, Lancaster became the first player to break 30 on a nine in the national championship. Also, his 65 on the day tied Shinnecock Hills' course record.
Lancaster is a droll sixth-year PGA Tour vet from the no- Shoney's town of Smithfield, N.C. Last year he won the Half-Nelson, the rain-shortened 36-hole Byron Nelson Classic, and finished 58th on the money list. Lancaster can play a little, but on Sunday he said, "I'm just as shocked as anyone about what happened. It was crazy out there."
Lancaster's rampage started with an eight-footer for a bird on the par-3 11th. Over the next three holes, all par-4s, Lancaster poured in birdie putts of 40, 65 and 25 feet. "My putting," he said, "was insane." Said his playing partner, Fuzzy Zoeller, "When he made the last of those putts, his eyes bugged out, and I had a feeling something amazing was going to happen."
A routine par on 15 followed, and Lancaster laid up on the 544-yard par-5 16th. His wedge approach shot landed 25 feet above the cup but with so much sauce that it sucked all the way down the sloping green for a kick-in birdie. On the par-3 17th Lancaster hooked a six-iron through the wind to the green and then, hoping only to avoid a three-putt, banged in a downhill 30-footer for his sixth birdie on the back. At 18 Lancaster was long with his approach and had to chip down the slope of the most terrifying green on the course. He flopped to three feet ("The greatest chip of my life," he said) and then nailed the putt dead-center.
Lancaster's blazing final round took him from 46th place to a tie for fourth (70-72-77-65-284). That brought with it $66,633.37 and exemptions for the next PGA Championship, Masters and U.S. Open. And it was even sweeter because Charles Lancaster was there to watch his son play. After Sunday's round he was by far the giddier of the two Lancasters. "It just kept buildin'," Charles said. "By the end I couldn't hardly stand it."
Said Neal, "At 18, Dad was cryin' and all shook up, and he said to me, 'Son, this is the greatest Father's Day gift ever.' And I said, 'What do you mean, it's Father's Day?' " Lancaster's mischievous grin gave away the joke.
Owning a piece of golf history is nice, as Lancaster will tell you, but there were more tangible benefits to his record performance. " Jim McGovern and I bet a case of beer on who was gonna finish better in the final round," Lancaster said. "I think he lost."