However, first Roberts, a 39-year-old who until this season had never won on the US Tour, squandered the chance to post a winning score at the 18th and Els, needing a par at the last, did the same thing. The upshot is that Roberts and Els also finished at five under and today the two will be joined by Montgomerie in an 18-hole play-off.
The tension, not to mention the heat, got to everybody on the leaderboard. Els had the lead, lost it, regained it and lost it again at the death. Nobody ever improved on seven under for the tournament and only three reached that mark, Els, Montgomerie and Roberts. After reaching the turn in 33, Montgomerie had three bogeys in a row but a birdie on the 17th proved to be crucial.
Roberts got to seven under with birdies at the 11th and 13th but dropped a shot at the 15th. Nevertheless, both he and Els, who dropped a shot at the 16th, needed pars at the last to finish a stroke in front of Montgomerie. Roberts hit his approach to the back of the green and his putt went about four feet past. He missed it and took a bogey five. Meanwhile Els's driving was going haywire. When he stood on the 17th tee at six under he assumed that Roberts would finish at six under. Els attempted to drive the 17th green (the hole is 315 yards) and lashed it way left of a stand. It is classed as a temporary immovable obstruction and from a dropping zone he pitched on to seven feet and missed the putt for a birdie.
He still led by a stroke but his drive at the 18th again flew left and when he chipped on to the fairway his luck had run out. His ball came to rest in a divot - an island of sand in a sea of green - and his third shot came up short. So did his first putt and he holed from four feet. A bogey five in a round of 73. At least he lives to fight another day. Els admitted he had not looked at the leaderboard when he arrived on the 18th tee and thought he needed a birdie at the last. That was sheer inexperience. 'I didn't know what I was doing,' Els said. 'I was stupid.' Montgomerie said: 'They threw me a lifeline and now I've got to take it.'
A gremlin appeared in the smooth swing of Els as early as the first hole. He dropped a shot after failing to take advantage of a lucky break. Els, obviously feeling the pressure, hooked his opening drive into deep rough and was fortunate to receive a free drop. A television tower was on his line of sight to the green and the 24-year-old South African was able to drop his ball on a bare patch of ground. He safely found the green with his approach shot but rolled his first putt five feet past and he missed the return.
Els, who led by two strokes from Frank Nobilo of New Zealand and by three from Montgomerie, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin and Loren Roberts, was feeling the heat as the temperature climbed above 100F. It did not seem possible but it was even hotter than on the first three days. By the time he reached the third hole Els had been caught.
Curtis Strange, who began the day at three under par, four strokes adrift of Els, had birdies at the third, fourth and fifth holes and at six under for the championship was level with Els. Strange, who won the US Open in 1988 and 1989 and who had done precious little since, sank a putt of around 20 feet at the third; made one of 12 feet at the fourth and from three feet at the fifth but he could not sustain his challenge. He had four rounds of 70, four under par.
Montgomerie also made a move with a birdie at the long fourth and another at the seventh with a 30-foot putt. Nobilo, playing in his first US Open, had a bogey at the second hole and was left scratching his head after another dispiriting experience at the third. His drive flew left into the series of bunkers called the Church Pews. Augusta National has Amen Corner, Oakmont has the dreaded Pews and they brought Nobilo to his knees. He had a terrible lie and could only hack out virtually sideways. Nobilo finished with a double bogey six and at two under par found himself four strokes off the lead.
The fourth, a par five of 560 yards, offered the players an early opportunity to salvage a birdie. Both Els and Nobilo reached the green in two and they duly secured their fours. Thus Els went back to seven under to recapture the lead.
As for Roberts, who shot 64 in the third round, a stroke off Johnny Miller's course record, he began with seven successive pars to remain at four under and made birdies at the eighth and ninth. At that point Roberts, at six under, was level with Els, who was playing behind him, and one behind Montgomerie. The mistakes became more pronounced over the back nine and, on greens which left them in confusion, they either left shots short and were far too long.
US OPEN (Oakmont): Complete third round scores (US unless stated): 206 E Els (SA) 69 71 66. 208 F Nobilo (NZ) 69 71 68. 209 C Montgomerie (GB) 71 65 73; H Irwin 69 69 71; T Watson 68 73 68; L Roberts 76 69 64. 210 S Lowery 71 71 68; C Strange 70 70 70. 211 G Norman (Aus) 71 71 69; S Pate 74 66 71; J Cook 73 65 73. 212 K Triplett 70 71 71; F Couples 72 71 69; M Ozaki (Japan) 70 73 69; C Dennis 71 71 70. 213 B Faxon 73 69 71; J Sluman 72 69 72; D Edwards 73 65 75. 214 B Jobe 72 74 68; S Ballesteros (Sp) 72 72 70; S Hoch 72 72 70; J Maggert 71 68 75. 215 B Crenshaw 71 74 70; D Waldorf 74 68 73. 216 C Beck 73 73 70; T Kite 73 71 72; J McGovern 73 69 74; J Nicklaus 69 70 77. 217 C Parry (Aus) 78 68 71; B Langer (Ger) 72 72 73; G Brand Jnr (GB) 73 71 73; L Clements 73 71 73; F Allem (SA) 73 70 74; J Furyk 74 69 74; S Verplank 70 72 75. 218 P Mickelson 75 70 73; T Lehman 77 68 73. 219 D Walsworth 71 75 73; M Springer 74 72 73; W Levi 76 70 73; P Baker (GB) 73 73 73; F Funk 74 71 74; S Torrance (GB) 72 71 76; J Gallagher Jnr 74 68 77. 220 F Quinn 75 72 73; S Simpson 73 74 73; D Love 74 72 74; H Royer 72 71 77; B Hughes (Aus) 71 72 77; D Martin 76 70 74. 221 D Berganio 73 72 76. 222 M Emery 74 73 75; F Zoeller 76 70 76; E Aubrey 72 69 81. 223 M Carnevale 75 72 76; B Lane (GB) 77 70 76; S Richardson (GB) 74 73 76. 224 O Browne 74 73 77; T Dunlavey 76 70 78. 225 M Smith 74 73 78; P Goydos 74 72 79; T Armour III 73 73 79. 227 E Humenik 74 72 81; D Rummells 71 74 82. Withdrawn: 225 R Mediate after 79 in 3rd rd.
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