Golf: Els stays course to follow Nicklaus' footsteps: South African eclipses pride of America. Tim Glover reports from Pittsburgh

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FOR Arnie read Ernie? Els swatted a question about him becoming the next best thing in golf with a wave of his hand. 'It's come early for me,' the 24-year-old South African said of his first major victory, the 94th US Open at Oakmont. Els became the second youngest winner. Jack Nicklaus won here at the age of 22 in 1962 and he too prevailed in a play-off.

Thirty-two years ago Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer tied on an aggregate of 283, one under par, and Nicklaus won it on the Monday with a level-par 71 to Palmer's 74. Els, caught in an 18-hole play-off with Loren Roberts, a 39-year-old journeyman from Memphis whose victory on Palmer's course in the Nestle Invitational at Bay Hill this year was his first on the US Tour, and Colin Montgomerie, shot 74. Roberts did likewise while Montgomerie, who had tied with them at five under after four rounds, went off the boil in the searing heat with a 78.

On the practice putting green before the start of the championship Els spoke to Palmer and the message from the 64-year-old Pennsylvanian to the player 40 years his junior from Johannesburg was inspirational. Palmer's view was that Els had the game to win at Oakmont, a course described by most of the contestants as the most challenging they had ever encountered.

When Arnie departed Oakmont after the second round the reaction from the crowd was so fantastic he was rendered speechless. He wrapped his head in a towel and received a standing ovation from the press corps. It was part of a traumatic week which, in the Three Rivers City, went a bridge too far. The television coverage of the championship was frequently interrupted by special bulletins on the O J Simpson saga. When Els and Roberts went into a sudden death play-off, television (in the United States but not in Britain) switched to O J's appearance in a Los Angeles court. In the middle of a heat wave we had O J on the run, Arnie retiring, Ernie on the leaderboard and Big Monty hanging in there. Not only that but Big Jack in duplicate: on one screen we had Nicklaus and on the other Charlton.

The vote of confidence from Palmer was not the only message Els received. He found a note in his locker from Gary Player, who won the title in 1965, and was handed faxes from the South African cricket team and F W de Klerk. This week Els is due to share a few beers with Ian Botham, watching Hampshire play South Africa.

If he had not concentrated on golf - he used to caddie for his father Neels at Kempton Park GC in Johannesburg - Els might have been playing in Springbok colours at cricket or rugby. On the other hand he was so good at tennis he might have been at Wimbledon. As it is he has probably made the right choice. Having won everything there was to win in South Africa in 1992 (six titles) he was fifth in the Open the same year, seventh in the US Open and sixth in the Open last year and eighth in the Masters this season. In January he won the Desert Classic in Dubai, his first victory on the European Tour, and the week before the US Open was second at Westchester. There was a lot of money riding on Els at Oakmont.

After the second hole in the play- off the betting slips were heading for the wastepaper basket. Els began bogey, triple-bogey. 'I just wanted to get out of there,' he said. 'I said to my caddie why the hell did I make that putt on 18 on Sunday to get into this thing. Man, what are you doing here? It was a horrific start and I never really felt comfortable.'

His caddie, Richard Roberts who was born in Halifax, Yorkshire and who emigrated to South Africa as a child, took some stick from Els when mistakes were made but gave as good as he got. The Americans, naturally, were rooting for Roberts, Loren that is. 'Miss the green]', 'Get into that bunker]' were remarks that could be heard directed against Els. His caddie spurred him on: 'The whole of Europe is behind you, the whole of Africa is behind you. I got him fired up.'

Els said: 'I dug very deep. When I had a putt to make I made it. I knew nobody was going to make a lot of birdies.' Els's seven at the second hole in the 18 hole play-off before the sudden-death play-off could well have had the effect of lulling his opponents into a false sense of security for both Roberts and Montgomerie dropped shots right, left and anywhere but centre. Montgomerie, third in the US Open at Pebble Beach two years ago in a gale and joint second here in a sauna, was tired mentally and physically and when he was asked if Oakmont was the most difficult course he had ever played he replied: 'Yes, by far. I'm very disappointed but I'm not despondent. I really earned every cent. Some weeks we don't. But in that heat and under that pressure it was so difficult I was physically sick when I came off the course. I don't have any bruises from this. I'm getting better all the time.'

He will next meet Els in the Bell's Scottish Open at Gleneagles in two weeks time and again the following week in the Open at Turnberry. Els, who won dollars 320,000 ( pounds 215,000) and who is incidentally third in the European Order of Merit behind Jose-Maria Olazabal and Montgomerie, also earned a 10- year exemption on the US Tour. He will play at least 15 tournaments in America next year but added: 'I'll play all over the place. . . Europe, America, Japan, Australia.' The only place he forgot to mention was South Africa.

With Olazabal winning the Masters and Els the US Open the Americans, for the first time in history, are in danger of emerging empty- handed from the four majors. The USGA is already regretting making a ruling error here. On the first hole in the fourth round, when Els drove left into deep rough, they gave him a free drop on the grounds that a television tower was on his line of sight. Officials later admitted they made a mistake. The mobile obstruction should have been moved and Els should have played the ball where it lay.

US OPEN (Oakmont): 18-hole play-off (US unless stated): 74 E Els (SA), L Roberts. 78 C Montgomerie (GB). Els won at second hole of sudden-death play- off.

COMPLETE FOURTH-ROUND SCORES: 279 E Els (SA) 69 71 66 73; C Montgomerie (GB) 71 65 73 70; L Roberts 76 69 74 70. 280 C Strange 70 70 70 70. 282 J Cook 73 65 73 71. 283 T Watson 68 73 68 74; G Norman (Aus) 71 71 69 72; C Dennis 71 71 70 71. 284 F Nobilo (NZ) 69 71 68 76; D Waldorf 74 68 73 69; J Maggert 71 68 75 70; J Sluman 72 69 72 71. 285 J McGovern 73 69 74 69; S Hoch 72 72 70 71; D Edwards 73 65 75 72. 286 F Couples 72 71 69 74; S Lowery 71 71 68 76. 287 H Irwin 69 69 71 78; S Ballesteros (Sp) 72 72 70 73; S Verplank 70 72. 75 70. 288 S Pate 74 66 71 77; S Torrance (GB) 72 71 76 69. 289 B Langer (Ger) 72 72 73 72; K Triplett 70 71 71 77. 290 M Springer 74 72 73 71; C Parry (Aus) 78 68 71 73; C Beck 73 73 70 74. 292 M Ozaki (Japan) 70 73 69 80; J Furyk 74 69 74 75; L Clements 73 71 73 75; D Love 74 72 74 72; J Nicklaus 69 70 77 76. 293 T Kite 73 71 72 77; B Crenshaw 71 74 70 78; T Lehman 77 68 73 75; F Allem (SA) 73 70 74 76; M Carnevale 75 72 76 70; B Faxon 73 69 71 80. 294 G Brand Jnr (GB) 73 71 73 77; P Baker (GB) 73 73 73 75; B Hughes (Aus). 71 72 77 74; B Jobe 72 74 68 80. 295 F Quinn 75 72 73 75. 296 D Walsworth 71 75 73 77; F Funk 74 71 74 77; P Goydos 74 72 79 71. 297 P Mickelson 75 70 73 79; J Gallagher 74 68 77 78; W Levi 76 70 73 78; M Emery 74 73 75 75; D Berganio 73 72 76 76; B Lane (GB) 77 70 76 74; T Dunlavey 76 70 78 73; O Browne 74 73 77 73. 298 S Simpson 73 74 73 78; H Royer 72 71 77 78; T Armour III 73 73 79 73. 299 F Zoeller 76 70 76 77; S Richardson (GB) 74 73 76 76. 301 D Martin 76 70 74 81; D Rummells 71 74 82 74. 302 E Aubrey 72 69 81 80; E Humenik 74 72 81 75; M Smith 74 73 78 77.

(Photograph omitted)