On a day of high-drama golf played out over a classic major championship venue, Payne Stewart provided the fabulous finish this 99th U.S. Open so richly deserved today. With one last pressure-filled putt, a 15-footer uphill, he saved a par for the ages and beat playing partner Phil Mickelson by one stroke at Pinehurst No. 2.
When that last stroke of brilliance sent the ball to the bottom of the cup, Stewart leaped high in celebration of his second U.S. Open victory in nine years, turned to the packed grandstand with a broad grin and waited for caddie Mike Hicks to jump into his arms.
Stewart's final putt put the finishing touches on a wild final round of 70 that left him at 1-under 279 over 72 holes. He was the only man in the original field of 156 to break par over a Pinehurst course made slightly softer by a daylong drizzle. Still, there were only two scores in the 60s today -- three all weekend -- making Stewart's victory after shooting 72-70 in the final two rounds all the more impressive.
Stewart's one-shot margin of victory was the result of three straight one-putt greens in his final three holes. He made a critical 25-footer to save par at No. 16, a five-footer for birdie at the 17th and that final putt at 18. USGA officials said it was believed to be the first time a player had made a putt of substantial length on the last hole to win the Open. The putt allowed Stewart, the winner in a playoff in 1991 at Hazeltine in Minnesota, to collect $625,000 and hoist the trophy again.
"I read the putt, and I said to myself, `Everything says it wants to go left, but it's inside right,' " Stewart said of his putt at the 446-yard 18th. "I'd stroked the ball well all day. I just said, `Give yourself a chance.' I went through the same routine I had all day. And it went in."
Bitterly disappointed after botching a four-shot advantage after 54 holes and losing by a shot to Lee Janzen last year at Olympic Club in San Francisco, Stewart crafted a finish that will go down as one of the most breathtaking in Open history, considering the caliber of the players involved.
"Everything just bubbles up inside you," Stewart said, "and then all of sudden it's over, and you did it. . . . I dealt with everything today. That's why I'm so proud of myself. I've wanted all year to achieve one goal [winning a major], and now I've added two. I won another major [his third], and I got myself on the Ryder Cup team, too."
Mickelson, who at 29 is still seeking a first major championship to complement his 13 PGA Tour victories, had a chance to birdie at the last hole. But his 22-foot uphill putt never came close to going in the cup, leaving him with a tap-in par and a round of 70 -- 280 for his best finish in a major.
"It's a difficult loss to take because it was so close," Mickelson said. "If I could have parred the last three holes, I felt even par would win or force a playoff at worst. His putt was a little easier than mine. It was straight uphill, and he could be very aggressive with it. It's both exciting and disappointing. It would have been a special week, but the last three holes, Payne played better."
Tiger Woods also will look back at the Open as a major opportunity lost. Save for two three-foot putts that lipped out at the 11th and 17th holes, he also would have matched Stewart's 1-under total and forced an 18-hole playoff Monday. Instead, he finished tied for third with Fiji's Vijay Singh, the PGA champion who shot 69 to match Woods at 1-over 281.
"I know I can win this tournament, there's no doubt about it," said Woods, who said he was almost relieved when Stewart made his winning putt because it took some of the sting out of his narrow miss at 17.
"It was a gutsy round for me," Woods said. "I'm very pleased with the way I played. I grinded my butt off today. That's the way it goes, I guess. I was making a lot of 10-15 foot putts this week. It all evens out."
Others in the field had less reason to be pleased with their final rounds.
David Duval, the world's No. 1 player, started the day three strokes off the lead, then put early heat on the leaders by making birdies on two of his first three holes. That got him to within two shots of Stewart's early lead.
But Duval had an uncharacteristic lapse, going from even par for the tournament after five holes to 5 over after 11, a stretch that included three bogeys and a double at the 179-yard 9th. There, he blasted a bunker shot over the green, watched his third-shot chip roll back close to his feet, then chipped again to seven feet and sank a tricky putt to avoid a triple bogey.
It didn't matter he made three more bogeys on the back trying to fire at pins placed in all the wrong places for birdie attempts. He finished with his second-straight 75 and a 7-over total of 287, tying for seventh place.
"At the turn, I had to make four or five birdies," Duval said. "I knew that. Combine that without being perfectly sharp and without playing perfectly, and not only is that not going to happen, but worse things are going to happen."
For Stewart, mostly good things happened down the stretch, save for a rare miss of an eight-foot putt at the 202-yard 15th hole. That dropped Stewart to even par and gave Mickelson, 1 under at the time, the lead going into the final three holes.
It was Mickelson's turn to miss a short putt at the 16th, a six-footer for par after Stewart had bombed in a 25-footer to save par himself.
Both men were even at that point, with Woods and Singh finishing their rounds up ahead at 1 over. At the 191-yard 17th, Stewart went first and hit his 6-iron tee shot within five feet of the hole. Mickelson almost matched him, striking his ball within seven feet. Once again Stewart made his putt for birdie, and Mickelson needed two for par, pulling his first attempt ever so slightly and never grazing the cup.
As they went to 18, Stewart was clinging to that one-shot lead, and the crowd was five and six people deep on both sides of the fairway. Stewart said he thought he had hit a fine drive, only to discover it had landed in high grass down the right side, a lie made even more difficult by the damp conditions. He hacked his second shot far short of the green, 77 yards from the hole.
Mickelson, meanwhile, hit a drive in the fairway and seemed horrified with his second shot, mouthing "Oh no" as soon as it left the club. But it landed 22 feet from the hole, safely on the putting surface. He went first, missed by a foot and tapped in, setting up the final stroke of the tournament -- Stewart's par- and tournament-saving attempt.
"I put myself in a position for a makable putt," Stewart said. "And lo and behold, I made it."
CAPTION: Tiger Woods blasts from sand on No. 8 en route to challenging for victory. But with putts that lipped out at Nos. 11 and 17, the 1997 Masters champion came up short, finishing in a tie for third place.
CAPTION: With his second U.S. Open title in hand, Payne Stewart, right, wishes well for final-round playing partner Phil Mickelson, who still chases elusive major.
CAPTION: Pumped after his par putt falls on No. 18, Payne Stewart is only player left from field of 156 to finish under par.
CAPTION: Triumph, Times Two: Payne Stewart celebrates after making par putt at No. 18 to win his second United States Open golf championship. (Photo ran on page A01)