It was late afternoon when Tom Lehman stepped in front of NBC camera number 37 on the penultimate hole of the U.S. Open at Congressional. His preshot routine was under way—a rolling of the shoulders, a half-circle walk from behind his ball, five quick glances at the target—on what would be the defining moment of a national championship that had coalesced around four men. For the third straight year Lehman had carried at least a share of the Open lead into the final round. He'd lost his grip on the title at Shinnecock Hills in 1995 and at Oakland Hills in '96, so by this day, June 15, 1997, his tale was familiar to many. The U.S. Open had become his white whale.
On the 71st hole, trailing Ernie Els by a shot, Lehman faced a 189-yard downhill approach to a green framed by water back and left. Lehman would call the yardage "perfect" for his seven-iron, but that did not mitigate the difficulty of his task.
The 17th fairway was on a downward pitch, making the margin of error even smaller than normal. And though every big tournament is jammed with spectators, the end of the 17th hole looked like an amphitheater of humanity and water interrupted by a green the size of a TV tray. About 60 yards away, across the water from 17, stood the par-3 finishing hole, where another mass of bodies stirred. Even for the best golfers in the world, the scene was unlike anything many had ever witnessed.
"At the Open at Congressional the electricity in the air around 17 and 18 was like no other," says Billy Andrade, who finished 13th. "I had never experienced that in golf. They packed in so many people on those last two holes, you knew it was special."
Sunday's pin on 17 was back and left, the ideal position for the draw that had won Lehman the claret jug in the British Open at Lytham the previous summer. He waggled his seven-iron one last time, settled in and sent his ball and a large divot airborne. In the distance two more NBC cameras—27 and 17—came to life.
The year 1997 was a boom time in golf, and Congressional was perfectly positioned to benefit from the new attention on the game in the greater realm of the sports world. In April, Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes. When U.S. Open entries closed in May, a record 7,013 players had signed up for a shot at Congressional, exceeding the previous mark set at the '92 Open at Pebble Beach by more than 800. NBC and ESPN combined to show a record 28 hours of live coverage. President Bill Clinton, the latest avid golfer-in-chief, brought his daughter, Chelsea, to Sunday's final round, during which the two watched approach shots into the 16th green.
The excitement around the championship was surpassed only by the play itself. At the end of the front nine on Sunday, Lehman had been joined at four under par by his playing partner, Jeff Maggert, a similarly straight driver. Maggert, who was 33 at the time, and Lehman, 38, had competed against each other on the mini-tours. Lehman was once so broke that he slept in his car in Bismarck, N.D., during an event called the K-Fire Open, sponsored by the local KFYR radio station. ("It was 98 degrees, and the mosquitoes were so bad that I had to keep the windows up," Lehman said.) "We played a lot together back then," Maggert says now. "Tom was in Asia one year when I was trying to play over there."
They had been chattier as younger men. On the final day at Congressional, Maggert says, "we didn't say much."
One group ahead, Colin Montgomerie of Scotland was also at four under despite the intermittent heckling that was fast becoming the sound track to his appearances in the U.S. The 33-year-old Montgomerie had been educated in the States, but his prowess on the European Ryder Cup team and dour mien made him an easy target at Congressional. "Monty, in my opinion, brought this all on himself," Andrade says. "Of all the Europeans to come over to the U.S., he was the most Americanized. He went to Houston Baptist University. He dated a girl whose father had a suite at the Astrodome. I always thought when I played with him, it was amazing that he was the one that let people get to him."
If Montgomerie ran hot, his playing partner, the 27-year-old Els was the opposite, at least outwardly. Els had taken down Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a playoff at the 1994 Open at Oakmont. Three years later Els was trying to do it again, holing critical putts in the third round (which was completed early Sunday morning because of rain delays) and carrying the momentum into the final round.