Golf: Stewart in swing for the `old men'

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The Independent Online
When Payne Stewart went round to congratulate his fellow Orlando resident Mark O'Meara on his US Masters victory earlier this year, he offered the prophecy that this was going to be the season of the "old men" at golf's major championships.

Stewart and O'Meara are both 41. By this time last year, Tiger Woods had won the Masters at the age of 21, Ernie Els had added his second US Open title at the age of 27 and Justin Leonard was a month away from his Open victory at Royal Troon, aged 25.

Golf was a young man's sport, apparently. Yet this is a time when there has never been a greater incentive to keep playing the game at the highest level for as long as possible. Vast prize-money, modern equipment, better fitness regimes and the lure of the Seniors tour have all contributed to players extending their careers.

Experience can still play its part and has been a crucial commodity at such a finicky course as Olympic. That is why Stewart, who began the final round as the only man under par and with a four-stroke lead, was chased by four other major champions in Tom Lehman, Bob Tway, Nick Price and Lee Janzen. All but Janzen, who is 33, are at least 39.

With the course drying out considerably on Saturday, the sloping fairways and the tiny greens became almost impossible to hold and it was in the third round that the honorary Jack Fleck role became vacant. Both Matt Kuchar, the amateur who celebrated his 20th birthday yesterday, and Lee Porter, a 32-year-old professional of no previous acclaim, fell out of contention with rounds of 76.

Fleck beat Ben Hogan in the first US Open played at Olympic in 1955, when Bill Stewart, Payne's father, shot rounds of 83 and 88. Hogan and Fleck tied at seven over. "My mum said the rough was knee-high," Stewart said. "So maybe they're taking it easy on us this week."

Stewart won the USPGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in 1989 and then the US Open at Hazeltine two years later, when he led after every round but had to rally from two behind with four to play to get into, and then win, a playoff against Scott Simpson. That year, Stewart did not play in the Masters because he was injured. Neither did he this year, for the reason that he did not qualify since his only win in the meantime came at the Houston Open in '95.

"It's hard to motivate yourself to come out here year after year, to work at it and bust it," Stewart said. "I don't want to blink and suddenly my kids are in college because I know once they go to college, they'll probably never live under our roof again.

"So if I have the opportunity to spend time with them, by reducing my schedule, that's what I'm going to do. I'm at the stage in my career where I don't worry about where I finish on the money list. But the majors are important to me."

Stewart was partnered yesterday by Lehman, making it the fourth year in a row when the 1996 Open winner has been in the last pairing at the US Open. Lehman birdied the 18th on Saturday to record a 68 on a day when the average score was a shade over 74. Over the first three rounds he had six putts on the 18 green, four of them coming on Friday when the pin was in a diabolical position.

The normally placid Lehman admitted he was ready to "bite somebody's head off" after that, but his usual demeanour is the more suited to US Open golf. "As long as you focus on every shot and give your best, you can accept the results," he said. "Thinking about the future, about winning, making the cut, what if I hit it in the rough, what if I do this, that kind of thing leads to bad play.

"You know you are in for a big fight. If you don't feel up for four days of busting your buns and never giving up, it can deflate you even before you start. You have to come in knowing that it's going to be tough, it's going to be difficult, it's going to test you emotionally, it's going to test your nerves and it's going to test just how much stamina and perseverance you have."

Certainly Lee Westwood showed many of those qualities in the third round when, despite starting the day at six over and well down the leaderboard, his 70 left him just four strokes behind second place. He was in sight of a finish in the top 15, to earn a return trip next year, and the top 16 to be invited to the Masters next April.

But Colin Montgomerie, who had to be accompanied by two uniformed police officers in an attempt to quell the heckling he has again been subjected to, crashed to 11 over par with a 77. "Not today," was his only comment. Not this year, was what he meant.

COMPLETE THIRD-ROUND SCORES

US unless stated

207

P Stewart 66 71 70

211

T Lehman 68 75 68, B Tway 68 70 73

212

N Price (Zim) 73 68 71, L Janzen 73 66 73

213

S Stricker 73 71 69, J Maggert 69 69 75

214

S Cink 73 68 73, M Carnevale 67 73 74215, J Furyk 74 73 68, L Porter 72 67 76, M Kuchar (x) 70 69 76

216

L Westwood (GB) 72 74 70, G Day 73 72 71, J M Olazabal (Sp) 68 77 71, F Lickliter 73 71 72, C Dimarco 71 71 74

217

S Appleby (Aus) 73 74 70, T Bjorn (Den) 72 75 70, T Woods 74 72 71, C Perry 74 71 72, J Huston 73 72 72, B Faxon 73 68 76, J Durant 68 73 76

218

L Roberts 71 76 71, V Singh (Fij) 73 72 73, P Mickelson 71 73 74, D Duval 75 68 75, E Romero (Arg) 72 70 76

219

S Verplank 74 72 73, P-U Johansson (Swe) 71 75 73, M Reid 76 70 73, B Zabriski 74 71 74, C Martin 74 71 74, J Daly 69 75 75, D A Weibring 72 72 75, J Parnevik (Swe) 69 74 76, F Nobilo (NZ) 76 67 76

220

S Pate 72 75 73, J Sluman 72 74 74, J Nicklaus 73 74 73, E Els (SA) 75 70 75, O Browne 73 70 77

221

J Sindelar 71 75 75, J Acosta 73 72 76, P Harrington (Irl) 73 72 76, T Kite 70 75 76, C Montgomerie (GB) 70 74 77, S Simpson 72 71 78

222

M Brooks 75 71 76, S McCarron 72 73 77

223

D Clarke (GB) 74 72 77, J Leonard 71 75 77

224

R Walcher 77 70 77, P Azinger 75 72 77, T Herron 75 72 77, M O'Meara 70 76 78, T Sipula 75 71 78

225

F Couples 72 75 78

226

J Johnson 74 73 79

x denotes amateur

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