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FOCUS ON GOLF / U.S. OPEN

Major Shortcomings

Disappointments: Love, Montgomerie, Mickelson, O'Meara are four who have won everywhere but in the Big Four.

June 12, 1997|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I think every young golfer has dreamed of making a putt on the last hole to win the Open. Fortunately, mine was about a foot long."

--Steve Jones, on his surprising victory in last year's U.S. Open.

*

Unfortunately for Davis Love, his putt was a few rolls longer than Jones'. What made it worse was that his three-foot downhill putt was left after an initial putt of only 20 feet.

Coming up that short in last year's U.S. Open was the last thing Love wanted. It would be the last thing any pro golfer would want. Heck, it would be the last thing any 15-handicapper would want on a three-hole carryover in a $1-per-hole skins game.

Love missed his three-footer, hitting it so softly it caught too much break and lipped out, leaving him him with a bogey, a second-place tie with Tom Lehman and, after 10 years on the PGA Tour, still a member of a club he wants to leave behind. He is one of several highly successful professionals who seem to have the credentials, but have never won one of golf's four major championships.

Will one of those players emerge this week at the U.S. Open at Congressional? If recent history is any indication, there's a good chance. The last five U.S. Opens have been won by players who had not won a major: Jones last year, Corey Pavin in 1995, Ernie Els in '94, Lee Janzen in '93 and Tom Kite in '92.

Golfers around the world felt for Love a year ago. Some more than others.

"That has to leave scar tissue [mentally]," says Johnny Miller, the NBC golf analyst who stormed to victory in the 1973 U.S. Open with a final-round 63. "Basically, all he has to do is par the last two holes and he wins. If he pars one he is in a playoff.

"He bogeys No. 17, which happens. But that three-putt on 18 was the most sickening three-putt I've ever witnessed. I was in agony. . . . I felt like I did it. You couldn't have had an uglier three-putt."

Miller, candid to a fault and not leveling some of his remarks at anyone in particular, went on to say that, while "it is possible to win an Open merely by falling into it, most of the time you have to face the music [pressure from others] . . . and when that is the case, very few people have the right stuff [mentally] to win a major."

For years, one of those people seemed to be Kite. Despite numerous tour victories under that big straw hat of his, he lacked that one major feather for it.

He finished second in the Masters in 1983 and '86. He had a four-stroke lead early in the final round of the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., but his game fell apart and he finished ninth.

Finally, 20 years after turning pro and at age 42, Kite silenced his critics in 1992, winning the Open on a blustery day at Pebble Beach, edging Jeff Sluman and Colin Montgomerie.

He said it felt as if the world had been lifted from his shoulders.

"It was bugging the living daylights out of me," he said. "I feel really good about Tom Kite and his career and everything going for me, but the only thing most people wanted to talk about was, 'You've done all those other things. How come you've never won a major?' "

Love, in his forthcoming book, "Every Shot I Take," says he still isn't sure what led to his coming unglued--if it can be called that--on the last two holes at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

"I've gone over the 17th and 18th holes a thousand times in my mind, trying to come up with something to explain why I did not make pars," he writes. "The only thing I can come up with is me. That's why I did not win that Open."

Love will have himself, and 155 other golfers, to contend with again when the 1997 Open gets under way today.

And unless hr wins, either here or at the British Open or the PGA Championship later this summer, for another year his name will remain high on anyone's list of the world's best golfers--you guessed it--never to have won a major.

Here's one ranking of four top players looking to add a major title to their resume, listed in order of the likelihood of breaking through at Congressional:

DAVIS LOVE III

There's no arguing that Love, 33, is a superb golfer. He has a smooth swing that has earned him more than $7 million since he turned pro in 1986. He has regularly been among the top golfers in driving and reaching greens in regulation. He is as dedicated to the game as anyone.

He won only one tournament before his father--a respected teacher who played in the 1964 Masters--was killed in a plane crash in 1988. Then he went on to win nine more, three in 1992. He has been second 10 times and has 66 top-10 finishes.

But his best finish in a major has been second. Twice.

Love had a chance to win the '95 Masters. He led Ben Crenshaw by one stroke after a birdie on the 15th hole. But Crenshaw, playing a week after serving as pallbearer in the funeral of Harvey Penick, his friend and teacher, made a dramatic charge, scoring birdies on 13, 16 and 17 and taking his second Masters before an emotional crowd at Augusta National.

Love, a stroke behind, was lost in the shuffle.

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