This is the eighth and final installment of our series looking back at USGA championships conducted at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, site of the 2012 U.S. Open. This story centers on Lee Janzen’s 1998 U.S. Open triumph.
Lee Janzen literally was up a tree in his quest to win the 1998 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club.
A champion five years earlier at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., Janzen had begun the final round five strokes behind leader Payne Stewart. That deficit became seven strokes after bogeys at the second and third holes. But at the par-4 fifth, his prospects went from doubtful to downright dismal.
Janzen pushed his tee shot into the Cypress trees right of the fairway, and one of the trees decided to keep it. Plenty of spectators saw the ball go in. No one saw the ball come out. “I hadn’t seen that ever before. I was stunned,” recalled Janzen.
Maybe it was new to Janzen, but not to Olympic Club. Eleven years earlier in the 1987 Open, Tommy Nakajima pushed a drive on the 18th hole into the right trees and its whereabouts remain unknown. The Japanese star was only two back at the time, but the double-bogey 6 left him four behind, and he never challenged in the final round as Scott Simpson went on to upset Tom Watson by one stroke.
Janzen figured he was headed for similar oblivion. “I was walking back to the tee thinking to myself that a double bogey would be a good score,” he says.
But he never made it back to the tee. Halfway there, a gust of wind kicked up, and Janzen’s ball was dislodged and tumbled to terra firma. It was a terrible lie in a terrible spot, but at least Janzen wasn’t penalized. The recovery shot was no bargain. He needed to hit his ball under trees, over thick rough and stop it before it hopped into more rough on the other side. Janzen managed to chop out to the first cut, but a 6-iron third was a touch strong and flew just over the back edge of the green, 30 feet from the hole.
Then Janzen unbelievably chipped in for par.
Now, the odds remained mighty slim that Janzen had enough time to reel in his Orlando neighbor, Stewart, whom he had beaten by two shots at Baltusrol. Janzen still trailed by seven, and as far as anyone knew, a par save, even one as miraculous as Janzen had just pilfered, didn’t look like a threatening development given that Stewart had controlled the 98th U.S. Open from the outset.
Stewart already owned a national title himself, the ’91 U.S. Open he had captured with a playoff victory over Simpson at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn. He also had won the 1989 PGA Championship.
He sure looked ready to win a third major title at Olympic, opening with a 4-under-par 66 to take a one-stroke lead over Mark Carnevale. Though he faltered slightly with a second-round 71, Stewart’s 36-hole total of 3-under 137 still outpaced Bob Tway and Jeff Maggert by one. A mere 70 in the third round enabled Stewart to extend his lead to four, while Tway, after a 73, and Tom Lehman, who shot 68, became the nearest pursuers.
Where was Janzen? He sandwiched a second-round 66 between a pair of 73s to begin the final round at 212, tied for fourth place with Nick Price. Janzen believed he had a chance, and that was even after he had double-bogeyed the 17th hole Saturday when a perfect drive ended up in a divot and then a laser 3-iron flew the green, which was a decent spot for the gallery but not for a golf ball.
“I figured that double bogey finished me, that I’d be too far back, but then I looked at the scoreboard and I noticed there were only four guys ahead of me,” Janzen said. “That lifted my spirits a lot.”
Who needs a sports psychologist when you can make that rationalization?
But, then, there he was ruefully trudging back to the teeing ground at the fifth hole the following afternoon just hoping he could make another double bogey. When he ended up salvaging a par, he received another lift.
“This I didn’t know, and found out later, but once you hit another drive and leave the teeing ground that second ball is in play, even if you find the first one. So I almost hit another ball and was lucky I hadn’t yet,” Janzen says. “I was fortunate all the way around, really. Chipping in, of course, I felt like I had won the lottery.”
As breaks go, it couldn’t have been better, but it was a swell omen for the 33-year-old golfer, too. It was the second time he had chipped in for the week, having holed out at the challenging, uphill par-4 second on Thursday. On the way to his ’93 victory at Baltusrol, he also had a couple of chip-ins.
Forget the lottery … Janzen was intent on winning the Open. But he needed help, and Olympic was a willing accomplice. Though Paul Azinger would submit a sterling 65 earlier in the day, Olympic was largely hard and forbidding. Of the final 24 golfers on the course who composed the last 12 groups, only one player broke par.
Janzen’s rally began at the seventh, when he birdied from 8 feet after a sand-wedge approach. Another 8-footer at the 11th returned him to even par, and he added two more birdies at 13 and 16. Playing with Steve Stricker, Janzen decided that he didn’t want to look at a scoreboard, so he never did, until the final hole.
“Walking to the green on 15, I hadn’t checked a scoreboard all day. I was in a groove and decided I was just going to keep doing what I was doing,” Janzen said. “Steve felt like he was just on the edge of making the Masters in that top 16, and I told him to hang in there and finish strong. Well, he was only a couple of shots behind me, so he laughed, and he told me later that it was like I was encouraging him, but also basically I was telling him I was going to win the tournament. I had no idea what he was shooting.”
He did he know what Stewart was doing either.
“When I putted out on 18, I didn’t know if I was one ahead or behind. Then I turned around and looked at the scoreboard I saw I was one ahead, and Payne had two holes to go,” said Janzen. “I had 30 minutes of waiting, which is harder than having to play.”
Janzen had shot 68, one of three sub-par rounds on the day, and was in with even-par 280.
Stewart, who died in a Learjet crash the following October – after courageously coming back to win the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 – could never find the form that kept him ahead the first three days. Playing with Lehman, who was in the final pairing on Sunday for the fourth consecutive year, Stewart staggered in with a 74-281, one shot behind.
But Stewart didn’t give away the championship so much as Janzen earned it. He finished first in driving accuracy and second in greens in regulation for the week. His driving was so precise on the tricky, sloping Olympic fairways that he recalls several holes where he aimed at a 2- or 3-yard patch of grass in order to keep his ball in the short grass.
“At the fourth hole, the play was 2 yards into the left rough, and I knew it would release and stay on the right side of the fairway,” Janzen recalls. “I hit the 2-yard strip every day. It was probably the best I’ve ever swung the club, especially given the circumstances.”
“His ball-striking was unbelievable that week,” says Rick Smith, Janzen’s swing instructor. “He was always a good driver of the ball, but there he really had a game plan and stuck with it, and he had the golf swing to execute that plan.”
Janzen’s was the best final-round comeback by a U.S. Open winner in 25 years. Former Olympic junior member Johnny Miller came from six behind with a record 63 at Oakmont in 1973. Arnold Palmer holds the record with his seven-shot comeback in 1960. Also coming from five strokes back in an Open were Byron Nelson in 1939 and Johnny Farrell in 1928.
The 1998 U.S. Open also was notable for two other occurrences.
Four four-time champion Jack Nicklaus, playing in the first year of an unprecedented three years of special exemptions from the USGA, made the cut for the 35th and final time. He ended up tied for 43rd.
The 98th U.S. Open also marked the first time a competitor rode in a cart. Casey Martin, suffering from a birth defect that caused the withering of his right leg, qualified for the championship in Cincinnati, Ohio – while also riding in a cart – after successfully suing the PGA Tour for the same accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Martin ended up tied for 23rd place at 11-over 291.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose articles have previously appeared on USGA websites.