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Tuesday, June 21, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At U.S. Open, Els' Finish Makes Up For Shaky Start -- At 24, He Downplays High Expectations

AP

OAKMONT, Pa. - Ernie Els was playing so poorly that he wanted to be somewhere else. Instead, he became the U.S. Open champion.

The 24-year-old South African began an 18-hole playoff for the U.S. Open championship yesterday with bogey, triple bogey at unforgiving Oakmont, quickly trailing Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie.

It was during the embarrassing triple on No. 2, after he'd taken a drop on the third tee from an unplayable lie and then pitched through the green, that he told his caddy, "`Why in the hell did I make that putt at 18 yesterday to get into this thing?' I just wanted to get out of there."

His caddy, Ricky Roberts, was having none of it. "Dig in there," he told Els. "Hang in there."

Els listened, steadied himself and won with a par on the second hole of sudden death when Roberts' 35-foot par putt caught the lip and spun out.

Els became the fourth foreign-born player since 1927 to win the American national championship, the first since 1981 and the second South African. The first, Gary Player, left a note in Els' locker before the round.

"He just wished me well," Els said. "I'm happy to follow in his footsteps."

In addition to a $320,000 first prize, the victory also provides a 10-year exemption on the PGA Tour, which Els plans to utilize next year.

On the day he won his first major championship, the quiet young man appeared very aware of what it all means. After all, he's been knocking at the door for some time, and in the last two years he's finished in the top 10 in two British Opens, two U.S. Opens and a Masters.

"I always wanted to win a major. It came early for me," he said. "I hope I can handle it. I don't want to let it change me.

"I'm going to play a lot of golf tournaments. I want to play well in the tournaments I play. People will expect me to win every week. That won't happen.

"I have a long road in front of me."

It won't be any longer that the one he faced at the third tee.

Regaining his composure and rebuilding his confidence, he scratched and scrambled, making the critical putts when he had to, and played the next 16 holes 1-under par, good enough to salvage a 3-over 74.

Roberts, a 38-year-old whose only victory in 13 years came two months ago, also finished at 74, and Montgomerie of Scotland took the struggling theme to an extreme and turned in a fat 78 that finished him after 18 holes.

Montgomerie's round included three double bogeys and a three-putt from 4 feet.

On the second extra hole, Roberts drove into the rough "and didn't have a chance to get to the green," he said.

Roberts dumped his second into a bunker, and the sand shot squirted to the right. Els, meanwhile, played the hole routinely - 2-iron to the fairway, 9-iron to about 18 feet.

After Roberts' 35-footer spun out, Els had two putts to win it, and he used them both.

"A lot of players have had that title," Roberts said when asked about Els' role as an up-and-coming superstar. "But he has a lot of game. He's long and he's straight and he's a good putter. That's what you have to have to be a great player.

"And the way he came back from that bad start shows a lot of guts."

-----------------------------------------------------------. U.S. Open scorecard. . Scores in the final, 18-hole playoff round yesterday at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club: . Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9. Par 4 4 4 5 4 3 4 3 5-36. x-Els 5 7 3 5 4 3 3 4 4-38. Roberts 4 5 4 5 6 2 4 4 4-38. Montgomerie 4 6 6 5 4 4 4 4 5-42. . Hole 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Total. Par 4 4 5 3 4 4 3 4 4 35-71. x-Els 5 4 6 3 4 4 3 3 4 36-74. Roberts 5 4 5 3 4 4 4 3 4 36-74. Montgomerie 4 6 5 2 4 4 3 4 4 36-78. . x-Won in sudden-death playoff.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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