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Easy Does It
Rick Reilly
June 23, 1997
Sweet-swinging Ernie Els outlasted a trio of challengers to win a raucous and riveting U.S. Open
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June 23, 1997

Easy Does It

Sweet-swinging Ernie Els outlasted a trio of challengers to win a raucous and riveting U.S. Open

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It was getting good now, so he pressed the binoculars tight to his eye sockets and rocked forward in his chair. He wasn't supposed to show favorites, but his heart was too far gone to care. His daughter had left, and his wife wasn't here, and besides, he just couldn't keep from pulling for America's lunch-pail pro, Tom Lehman. "People are really for him, y'know?" he said to nobody in particular. "I just like the guy so much." Then the President of the United States leaned forward some more. "This is it! This is showtime!"

Below him, in the plush 17th fairway on Sunday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., outside Washington, Lehman looked at his ball and wondered if things could have been any better. Perfect lie, perfect yardage, perfect shot, right to left for his controlled-crash hook, to a pin tucked on the left side of the green, on a hole he needed to par, at least, if he was to avoid becoming the answer to an ugly trivia question: Who is the only man to lead three consecutive U.S. Opens with 18 holes to play and blow them all?

"I just can't describe how good that situation was," Lehman said later. "Imagine being so hungry you can't stand it. You come around the corner and there, on a huge platter, are all your favorite foods. It was just so perfect."

If there really is such a thing as karma, it was about time it entered the picture for Lehman, who is a kind of Jimmy Stewart in spikes—good and decent and square as a pan of corn bread, a guy who grows prize roses in his backyard, cuts a dozen and gives them to his wife every morning. "The best husband on Tour," says one PGA Tour wife, "and the best father." He's also the most accessible interview, the gentlest friend and the longest-suffering player. When it comes to the Open, karma long ago deserted Lehman. Two years ago he led at Shinnecock Hills before he lost to his nerves. Last year, in the crunch at Oakland Hills, he fortified his playing partner, Steve Jones, with Bible scriptures and then took it on the chin when Jones parred the 72nd hole and he bogeyed it. This year had to be different.

Besides, after all that went on, didn't this week deserve a happy ending? Into the buttoned-down land of the Subcommittee of the House Panel on Soybean Prices had come Golfapalooza. Used to be, U.S. Opens were a lot of whale-print pants and finger sandwiches and arbitrage guys whispering, "Don't you just love his wrist pronation?" But around Washington, the 97th U.S. Open became a good reason to drink 14 beers and scream, "Siccccc 'em, Tiger!"

Yeah, Tiger Woods is bringing all sorts of new fans to the golf course, many of whom believe a sand wedge blast is the latest combo deal at Subway. Golf gets a younger, louder and wilder crowd, times two. For the first time, the sentence "check out that pin placement" might refer to a pierced nose in the gallery. "These aren't golf fans," one Congressional member grumbled. "These are yahoos."

So true. And ain't it great? During Friday's 2-hour and 40-minute rain delay, the 10,000 or so gathered at the steeply banked theater across a lake from the 17th green did the first wave in Open history. Even when they were warned that lightning was in the area and they would do well to take cover, they refused to give up their positions (Are you crazy? Tiger will be coming through!) and simply held each other's places while making emergency trips to the microbrew tent. On Saturday, during a one-hour frog-choker of a downpour, they turned the hill into a sort of adult Water World, taking great running starts at it, flopping in the mud headfirst and then trying to figure out a way to stop themselves before having to take a free drop out of the lake.

"This has been the rowdiest gallery I think I have ever seen," said Davis Love III. "It's turning into a baseball or basketball game when people can yell or say anything they want." Imagine that. Being able to say anything you want? At a sporting event? In America?

O.K., so it got a little out of hand on Friday, when Tiger still seemed to have a chance to win and the bulbous Brit, Colin Montgomerie, took his first-round, tournament-best, five-under 65 to the course. The rain delay clogged the beer tents, and when it was over, some cheered Monty's missed putts. Some hollered, "Go USA!" as he left one green, causing him to holler back, "Save it for the Ryder Cup!" Montgomerie set the record that day for Most Times Backing Away from a Putt on Account of Port-A-Potty Doors Slamming. All of which accompanied his 76, Monty's worst round of the week by seven shots. Whatever happened to keeping your head down?

God forbid Woods would've been in the hunt or the spectators might have turned Congressional into a Manchester United game. There was talk that Tiger, coming off his historic Masters win, might even make a run at the Grand Slam. Instead, he started his week by shooting a four-over 74, blowing past 100 reporters who were looking for a comment and storming to his courtesy car, where he took his portable CD player and did the Sony Slam into the floorboard. "Why would you want to talk to a guy who is nine shots out of the lead?" Woods explained the next day. Why? For the same reason people wore full-wool tiger suits in the 90° heat and NBC kept going to breathless live coverage of Woods warming up on the practice tee. Johnny, I think he's going to—yes! He's aiming for the range tractor!

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