It was the most compelling U.S. Open in recent memory, and the first in the 99 years of America's national championship of golf that ended with a player, Payne Stewart, sinking a putt of substantial length on the last hole to clinch a victory. The storied venue where it all played out made it that much more memorable.

It was a magnificent stage on which Stewart, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh found themselves the protagonists over the final holes at Pinehurst No. 2. In the harshest spotlight of all, with one 15-footer remaining, Stewart rose to the occasion with a scintillating stroke that secured his second Open title in the '90s.

It is often said that no major begins until the back nine on Sunday, but this was a championship that began a year ago, also on Father's Day, when Stewart squandered a four-stroke 54-hole lead on the field, shot 74 in the final round and was denied victory when Lee Janzen came from five back to beat him by a shot for his second Open title.

Earlier last week, Stewart, 42, had spoken after a practice round about being grateful to have the opportunity to try again.

"Most people never get a second chance," he said. "You live for the chance and pray you can get in the same situation again, but it usually doesn't happen. But I'm here to play out that chance. I've waited a year, I've thought about it for a year. I don't want to go back home and have people telling me what a great fight I put up. I want to take the trophy back home." After his victory Sunday, Stewart elaborated on the sweet satisfaction of taking full advantage of that chance.

"Last year it was, `Oh man, what a great try, great try,' " he said. "Well, I didn't want to hear that today. I didn't want to hear that when I got back to Orlando and had all my friends come up and say, `Boy, it was a great effort, you're a great competitor, but bad luck.' "

This year, he will hear the part about being the consummate competitor, but he won't mind so much. Anyone who watched Stewart scramble around the course to make pars from some very intriguing places could see that he was grinding out every shot, using the imagination honed over his 18-year career to hang on and ultimately prevail by a shot over Mickelson, a miracle worker himself for most of that memorable afternoon.

Stewart hit only seven greens in regulation, but was constantly getting up and down, as was Mickelson, who had six saves of par on his first 10 holes. When Mickelson started hitting greens properly, Stewart, with a total of 24 putts, still found a way to get home safely in the end. His last three holes ought to provide the classic model for how major championships are won.

After missing what he described as a "really good" eight-foot putt and making bogey at No. 15 to fall back into a tie at even par with Mickelson, Stewart again looked to be stuck on what he described as "that bogey train" at the 489-yard 16th. His 2-iron approach was considerably short, and then he hit a dreadful chip that ran 25 feet past the hole. No problem. He drained that putt, far more difficult than his 15-footer at 18, then calmly hit a 6-iron at the 17th to within five feet of the hole, and made that, too, for a birdie.

Stewart was a fan favorite in the end, though he admitted that throughout his round, he sensed the crowd was pulling for playing partner Mickelson, who was trying to win his first major 10 days before his wife was due to give birth to their first child. And up ahead, he could also hear the roars, and occasional groans, from the teeming masses following Woods's fortunes and misfortunes.

Mickelson had to wait just one day for fatherhood, though. His wife, Amy, gave birth to a daughter, Amanda Brynn, tonight at 9:11 EDT. Mickelson carried a beeper in his bag and vowed he would leave the U.S. Open if his wife went into labor -- even in the final round or a playoff with a chance to win. A spokesman for Mickelson said Amy went into labor about 3 p.m. EDT -- or about the time Stewart and Mickelson would have been making the turn in their 18-hole playoff.

The other major star was Pinehurst No. 2 and its architect, Donald Ross, who died in 1948 but was very much a palpable presence all week. But for once, only a few players -- namely John Daly, who shot 29 over par -- had criticized either the course or the set-up by the USGA. It was considered by most to be fair, even if Stewart was the only man in the field under par.

"I'm going to write a memo when I get back recommending that we have similar kind of short rough next year at Pebble Beach," said Grant Spaeth, a former USGA president who is on the board of directors. "Pinehurst was magnificent in every way. What a finish. It will be very hard to top that."