His week of mirth and merriment had turned into a bad joke, but Neal Lancaster (a.k.a. Cuz) kept his sense of humor on Sunday. Needing only a bogey on the 72nd hole to win the Canadian Open, Lancaster yanked his approach way left of the green, hit a poor pitch, then three-putted for double bogey. That left him at 16 under par and in a playoff with Justin Leonard and John Rollins. When Lancaster joined them on the 18th tee a few minutes later to commence sudden death, he walked up to Leonard, stuck out his hand and said simply, "You're welcome." Then Lancaster turned to Rollins, shook his hand and repeated the line. Naturally, Cuz got a smile out of both of his opponents.
Lancaster's final-hole meltdown was a cruel twist—the critical three-putt was his first of the week at Angus Glen Golf Club, outside Toronto—but the worst was yet to come. In the playoff Lancaster's tee shot on the 455-yard par-4 landed in the fairway, same as in regulation. But he again pulled his approach shot, this time into a bunker, and once more failed to get up and down. When Rollins rolled in a 20-footer for birdie and the win ( Leonard had made par), there was no way Lancaster could sugarcoat what had just happened, although Cuz had a funny way to describe it. "The bottom line is, I choked," he said. "I blew the tournament. I guess I know how Jean-Claude Van Damme, or whatever his name is, felt."
Lancaster's crash wasn't as high-profile as Jean Van de Velde's collapse in the 1999 British Open, but it allowed Rollins, 27, to win for the first time on Tour and jump from 53rd to 26th ($1,583,974) on the money list. In only his second year on the big circuit, Rollins now stands a good chance of finishing among the top 30 in earnings, which brings an invitation to the season-ending Tour Championship and assorted other lucrative goodies. Despite all that, he didn't really feel like celebrating. "I feel bad for Neal because he played great all week," Rollins said. "I don't wish anything bad on anybody. We're all friends out here."
The lugubrious denouement was at odds with the joyful aura that had enveloped Lancaster, who will turn 40 on Sept. 13, for most of the week. A self-described hillbilly from Smithfield, N.C. (pop. 11,600), Lancaster may be an unknown to casual fans, but he has long been a hit in Tour locker rooms. "Everybody knows Neal, and everybody likes him. He's absolutely hilarious," says Greg Chalmers, who tied for fourth, a shot out of the playoff.
A self-made player, Lancaster didn't take a lesson until he was 30. His only Tour victory came at the so-called Half Nelson in 1994, when rain shortened the Byron Nelson Classic to 36 holes and Lancaster won a six-man playoff. Nevertheless, Cuz has made only one return trip to Q school (in 1999) in his 13 years on Tour.
The Canadian fans weren't sure what to make of Cuz—some encouraged him by yelling, "Go, Texas!"—but he played with such joie de vivre that he was easy to root for. "I thank God I'm not in an office every day," he said after the second round, when he shot 67 to take the lead. "I could be back home selling cars with my dad. When I was young, I told my mom that I wanted to be a garbage man because they used to come by on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I thought those were the only days they worked."
Lancaster spit out such homespun pearls all week. Asked whether he was Smith-field's most famous resident, he said, "No, Ava Gardner is. She's dead, but she's still more popular than I am." Of his 7:30 a.m. tee time on Friday he said, "The only time you should play golf that early is if you can't get a tee time or you have a wife you need to get away from." Then there was his riff on what it was like to play in the 2002 British Open, in which he made the cut in a major for the first time in six years: "The greatest part was after I got done on Friday, I had a few beers with a bunch of Scots. I talked to them for 30 minutes, they talked to me, and nobody understood a word—and we were sober."
Lancaster had an ideal sidekick at Angus Glen in fill-in caddie Kenny Doig, a pony-tailed 48-year-old chain-smoker from Seaforth, Ont. Lancaster had called Doig after his regular bagman, Dave Beighle, had car trouble in Pennsylvania and couldn't make it to Toronto. Lancaster and Doig have some history. Doig was on the bag when Lancaster shot his nine-hole-record 29s in the 1995 and '96 U.S. Opens. Last Saturday, after Lancaster holed a 15-footer for birdie at the 11th to go three shots up on the field, Doig told his boss that he wanted some airtime, too, and ran to the hole and plucked Lancaster's ball out of the cup in front of the TV cameras.
Lancaster and Doig chatted incessantly on the course—"He actually didn't talk for 50 yards on number 10," Lancaster said on Friday. "I thought he might've had a heart attack or something"—but were strangely silent on the back nine on Sunday. Lancaster admitted that his nerves got the best of him, and wondered how many opportunities he had left. "It's so hard to get into contention," he said. "Then once you get there and don't win, you feel like a total failure. I'll get over it, but right now it's hard."
Hard or not, the stand-up comic was a stand-up guy to the end, answering every question and accepting every condolence. Late Sunday evening, as he rushed through the parking lot to catch a flight back home, Lancaster stopped to pose for a picture with a tournament volunteer. He told Doig to go ahead and get the car, adding, "Don't let me drive, though. I'm liable to go 150 miles an hour through that clubhouse."