By diabolical design the U.S. Open is lost with bogeys far more often than it is won with birdies. In golf's annual homage to par, victory usually comes down to a knack for holding on. So perhaps it was no coincidence that on Sunday, on a thumb-breaker of a course, the strongest grip on glory was applied by the desperately conceived reverse overlap of Steve Jones.
The remarkable winner, who clawed his way to a two-under-par 278, was one of 10 players who were at even par or better at some point during the final round. And like the rest of that group, Jones lost at least one stroke to par coming down the stretch. The fearsome finishing holes at suburban Detroit's Oakland Hills Country Club put every contender into reverse, from big names such as Norman, Els and Montgomerie to smaller ones like Austin, Furyk, Morse and Nobilo. Still, when it comes to what might have been, the 96th Open will be remembered for the two players whose fingers were pried off the prize last—Tom Lehman and Davis Love III.
Lehman and Love came to Oakland Hills with similar credentials. Although Love, 32, is five years younger than Lehman and has eight more victories, with 10, both are highly respected power players who have proved their mettle in the Ryder Cup. In the Sony World Ranking, Lehman is 13th and Love 16th. Each has now come close to winning three major championships, including last year's Open at Shinnecock Hills, and both are candidates for the most despised label in the professional game—Best Player Never to Have Won a Major. The USGA must have seen the connection, because it paired them in the first two rounds at Oakland Hills.
Lehman and Love now have one more thing in common: anguish. With golden opportunities to win that coveted first major, both bogeyed the 72nd hole to finish a stroke behind Jones.
Love's disaster was the more horrifying. On Sunday, despite hitting only four fairways through 16 holes, he had worked his way to three under par for his round and into a tie with Jones at three under for the championship. But on the 200-yard, par-3 17th, Love blocked his five-iron tee shot to the wrong side of a severe hogback on the green and, after a difficult lob shot, missed a 20-footer for par. Playing in the penultimate twosome, Love dropped to two under, one behind Jones and into a tie with Lehman. Gathering himself on the 465-yard, par-4 18th, the toughest finishing hole in major championship golf, Love, using a three-wood, drove into light rough and followed with a near perfect six-iron that left his ball 20 feet above the hole.
Believing the putt to be "screaming fast," Love nudged the ball forward only to watch it die three feet short. As he prepared to stroke the crucial par-saver, he suddenly bent over to wave away tiny flies that were buzzing around the hole. The tension became too much in the locker room, where several players were rooting for Love. "Please, Davis, hit it; it's reminding me of Doug Sanders," pleaded Peter Jacobsen, recalling the 1970 British Open, in which Sanders missed a three-footer-to-win on the final hole after nervously bending over to clear some debris from his line.
Sure enough, Love's putt grazed the left edge of the cup, having been hit either too softly or with not enough borrow. Because he missed from short range on the final hole to lose by one, Love's heroics in the 1993 Ryder Cup, in which he made a pressure-packed six-footer on the final hole to assure a U.S. victory, will be forgotten. Instead, he will be lumped with three other players who suffered similar fates in the Open—Sam Snead (1947), Ben Hogan (1956) and Bob Rosburg (1969).
"I guess I'll be explaining those putts for a long time," a composed Love said afterward. "I was extremely, extremely nervous, but I approached both of them feeling I was going to make them. The thing that surprised me about the first one was that I could actually hit it too easy. The next one was a hard putt, and I did a good job of staying in my routine. The flies got in my line, but I didn't rush right up and hit it after stepping away. I just didn't execute it very well."
Lehman's loss might be harder to take because he did execute, only to be undone by an unlucky bounce. On the strength of a course-record-tying 65 on Saturday, Lehman started the day with a one-shot lead at two under, and he briefly extended the spread to three strokes when he birdied the 7th hole to go four under. But he bogeyed the 10th after a poor tee shot, and on the par-5 12th, the second-easiest hole on the course, Lehman's second shot, a perfectly struck driver from 275 yards, ran over the green to the back of a steep bunker. Forced to play out away from the pin, Lehman left himself 50 feet from the hole. He three-putted for a cruel bogey that dropped him to two under and a stroke behind Jones. "The 12th hole is what stuck me pretty good," Lehman said. "It was the turning point. It's one thing to hit a skanky shot and make a bogey. It's another to hit two pure drivers on a par-5 and walk away with a 6."
Lehman was further abused when he lipped out a good-looking 20-footer for birdie at the par-4 16th, a putt that was reminiscent of his missed eagle attempt on the 15th at Augusta in 1994, when he came in second to José María Olazábal in the Masters. And then at the 17th, Lehman's six-iron tee shot landed 20 feet in front of the hole but bounced over the green and into the rough.