It never used to be a problem distinguishing the Kemper Open from the U.S. Open. Of course, it never used to be a problem distinguishing pro basketball from pro wrestling. Welcome to the '90s.
No one is going to mistake the TPC at Avenel in Potomac, Md., site of the Kemper Open, for nearby Congressional Country Club, where the U.S. Open is being held, but last week there were similarities. Open rough is normally meaner than Albert Belle, while Kemper's is nicer than Rosie O'Donnell. Last week Avenel's rough was unusually tough, thanks to a cool, wet spring in the East. Open greens are baffling, so hard and fast that one mistake and you're gone in a flash. Avenel's greens were a mystery too, but for a different reason—Poa annua, the grabby seasonal grass that sprouts seed heads until the first wave of hot weather. The mostly bentgrass greens at Avenel were still showing splotches of Poa annua, which made them play like quilted minefields. Balls would stick in the Velcro-like Poa annua, then shoot through the patches of slick bentgrass. "I don't know how many of you fish," Joey Sindelar said to reporters, "but these greens are like putting on a pickerel."
Those conditions kept the scores high, just like at the Open, in which four straight pars can constitute a charge. Since the Kemper moved from Congressional to Avenel in 1987, only twice has the winning score been higher than the 10-under-par 274 put up by Justin Leonard, last week's champion. By contrast, in 1991 Billy Andrade won at 21 under. So give the Kemper a U.S. Open learner's permit. The tournament even featured an Open-like finish. Leonard, the preppy 25-year-old Texan, won the Kemper the Open way—by barely surviving, then letting the other guy dial 911 and beat himself. (How to win major championships: See Nicklaus, Jack.)
The other guy at Avenel was equally gritty Mark Wiebe, a 39-year-old from Denver who not only hadn't won in 10 years but also hadn't played well in the last lour, especially since injuring his right shoulder in a 1994 skiing accident. Wiebe clung tenaciously to the lead for the first three days, inspired by a recent pep talk from Broncos quarterback John Elway. They've long been friends, but over post-golf drinks a month ago at Castle Pines Golf Club near Denver, Elway told Wiebe, "Hey, man, I've played with all these Tour guys. You're as good or better than all of them, and it's time for you to start playing like it."
Wiebe was surprised. "It was not quite tear-in-your-eye, Cinderella-story stuff," he says. "He just gave me a kick start. We talked about a lot of things, and one of them was getting my butt in gear."
Wiebe kept grinding along, then lost control at the end. An errant drive and two three-putt greens caused him to bogey three of the last four holes and lose by one shot. It got ugly when Wiebe led by one with two to play. His six-iron shot cleared the pond at the par-3 17th but left him a 40-foot putt. He lagged to inside three feet, then lipped out the par attempt. "I got a little shaky there," Wiebe said.
He responded with a terrific drive at the 18th and a solid nine-iron approach to 20 feet. The potential winning putt for birdie was a fooler. It took a hard left, stopping three feet—maybe less—below the hole. The crowd, anticipating a playoff, groaned when his par attempt didn't even catch a piece of the cup. "I did not hit a good putt," said a red-eyed Wiebe, whose last victory was the 1986 Hardee's Classic. "I don't know what to say."
Just say that this is how the U.S. Open usually ends. (See Oakland Hills: Love III, Davis; Lehman, Tom.) Just say that Wiebe was playing under some unusual circumstances. Not only was he in the middle of a swing change, but he also was six weeks into a yearlong program of allergy shots. Years of recurring sinus infections, wooziness and lack of energy sent him, grudgingly, to a doctor who discovered that Wiebe is allergic to grass and trees. The weekly shots make his hands shake, a condition he overcame during the first three rounds, but on Sunday he had 35 putts, including four three-jacks.
As much as Wiebe lost the tournament, Leonard, who stiffed three approach shots on the final nine, won it. He came from five strokes behind, and his closing 67 tied for the day's low round. The victory was the second in two years for Leonard, a native of Dallas whose idea of a great 13th-birth-day present was a round of golf at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. "There are guys who have never won, guys who have won one tournament, and there are multiple winners," said Leonard, who broke through at last August's Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. "I guess I'm in a new category. The first win was probably the hardest to get, but this one is just as sweet."
It should be. In addition to surviving Open conditions, Leonard beat a major championship pack of contenders. Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Nick Price shared third with Mike Springer. Norman's late charge, a final-nine 31, should put everyone on alert this week. He finished only three shots behind Leonard despite a bizarre third-round 73.