Win a major golf championship? There must have been days when
Steve Elkington wasn't sure he could go on playing golf at all.
This is a guy who must roll up his sleeves twice a week, swab a
little alcohol on his triceps and stick himself full of allergy
serum. You don't often see this: a golfer allergic to grass. A
cop allergic to doughnuts.
Sounds funny, but even his wife, Lisa, walks out of the room for
this part. She can handle 5-1/2-hour sinus surgeries and constant
infections and bouts with viral meningitis and searing
headaches. But sometimes her eyes have seen too much.
Come from six strokes back on the last day, post an electric 64
and win a Maalox playoff? Are you kidding? This is a guy who had
to step away from a few shots last week during the PGA
Championship at Riviera because the ground was spinning. He had
withdrawn from the Buick the week before with a sinus infection,
and last Saturday morning he was so sick he wasn't sure he could
get out of bed.
Reel in a god-in-waiting like Ernie Els on the last nine holes
of regulation and then break portly Colin Montgomerie's heart
with a birdie on the 73rd? Please. This is a guy who probably
doesn't even belong in the sun. When doctors found melanoma on
him last year, it meant removal of a surgical chunk out of his
shoulder the size of a mown-in-half golf ball and the start of
But on Sunday in Pacific Palisades, Calif., Elkington stifled
the sneezes, the runny noses and the congestion and became the
guy who breathed his fondest wish. In a performance that matched
the skinniest numbers in the history of golf's majors--68-67-68-
64-267--he rotogravured his name on the Wanamaker Trophy.
O.K., so maybe history will giggle at this one. They'll cough at
the crummy attendance, ahem at the obscene scoring (four 64s,
two 63s and the lowest scoring average, 71.09, in major history)
and sneer at the Naugahyde greens--spiked and brown and dead. And
they'll point out that everybody was treating it more as a
qualifier for next month's Ryder Cup at Oak Hill in Rochester,
Well, maybe it was that, too. For the Americans this was the
last chance to score real points for the 10 guaranteed spots and
brownie points with captain Lanny Wadkins, who had two wild-card
picks. Brad Faxon had tried Plan B: the power suck-up. At
Phoenix he handed Wadkins a plate of cookies with milk and
complimented his swing. Didn't work. Wadkins hinted it would be
best if Faxon played his way on. He had tried Plan C: hope. His
wife, Bonnie, is due with their third child on Sept. 18, the
Monday of Ryder Cup week. The Faxons arranged to induce labor on
the 11th, just in case.
But by Saturday night Faxon's options seemed shot. He was in
21st place, so he went back to Plan A: finish fifth and make the
team on points. Good luck.
Except that Faxon shot a major-record 28 on the front nine and
poured in a 17-foot par putt on the 18th to cap a sporty 63,
which put him in, voila, fifth place. After he had made one of
the greatest Ryder Cup qualification runs--and joined Jeff
Maggert, whose third-place tie leapfrogged him from 11th onto
the team--somebody asked Faxon why he wanted to make it so badly.
"Free clothes," he said.
Wadkins used his two picks to take a strange couple--Curtis
Strange and Fred Couples. The former hasn't won in this decade,
and the latter has played in only six events since the Masters.
But Strange brings a legacy to Oak Hill, where he won his last
U.S. Open in 1989. And Couples brings all that talent.
As does Els. Riviera appeared reserved for the big-boned
25-year-old magnificently drowsy South African, ambling along in
his bovine way, as if any minute he might lie down in the kikuyu
grass and make animals in the clouds. He had led, along with
Mark O'Meara, at 11 under after two days and had owned it flat
out after three at 16 under, three strokes and miles ahead of
"Considering the way the course is playing and the way you're
playing, isn't a three-shot lead insurmountable?" a distaff
reporter asked him Saturday night. To which Els wrinkled his
nose and replied, "Have you been around, lady?"
But when he and his documented standing-50 pulse began on Sunday
by making an easy birdie at the par-5 1st hole and taking a
four-shot lead into the 3rd, it looked as if Els would become
the first man since one Jack William Nicklaus to win two majors
by the age of 25.
But then someone Els seemed to take over. He bogeyed the arduous
4th and the easy 6th, the green with a bunker in the middle of
it. On the 9th he saw Elkington had caught him. At the 10th he
noticed he was behind. His 72 was two too many and looked like a
typographical error next to the 66-65-66 he had already put up,
all of which caused him to retire to the clubhouse for some cold
ones. "What the hell do you want me to say?" he moaned. "It
was a hard situation." He took a powerful chug and looked at his
shoes. "Next time."
For once, next time felt like right now to Elkington, the
Australian who has grown to hate the question, "So, what is Greg
Norman really like?" "I was just swinging so good," he said. Of
course Elkington always swings good. His golf swing is something
of an aria, named in a players' poll as one of the three best on
Tour. "God," said one player, "can you imagine living with
The difference this time was that his putting stroke was just as
good. His next-door neighbor and longtime mentor in Houston,
1956 PGA champion Jackie Burke, had found a flaw during
Elkington's back-nine struggles last month at the British Open,
where he finished two back despite--surprise--hitting one approach
after another within the shadow of the flagstick. He wasn't
releasing the putter, Burke scolded. This was news? Elkington
came to Riviera ranked 133rd on the Tour in putting.
Suddenly he was pouring in putts. In fact, nobody had fewer
putts for the week than Elkington's 106. Montgomerie had 14
more. And Sunday, when he birdied seven of the first 12 holes,
Elkington was away by two.
Then Montgomerie, a boy fairly weaned on golf-course grass, the
son of the secretary at Scotland's Royal Troon, began his own
scorched-cup tour. He birdied the 16th and 17th. And as
Elkington sat in the scorer's booth watching on TV, the Scot
thumped in a 20-footer on the 18th.
Elkington came out of the booth and looked for Lisa and their
four-month-old, Annie, took them over to a shady spot and
changed a diaper. "I just had to be alone with them for a
minute," he said. Early leader: Father of the Year.
The players were trundled back to the 18th tee in separate
carts, Cushman gladiators on a verdant Hollywood set under sky
painted overly blue. It was a one-picture deal, Elkington
playing the hero and Monty, naturally, the heavy.
Both creased perfect drives and very good eight-irons. Elking
ton's ball stopped on the same line Montgomerie's had been on 15
minutes before. Elkington knew that putt. He had watched it on
TV. Just Monty's luck. Impaled on his own skewer.
The 25-footer practically sank itself, marching obediently into
the left side of the cup. Elkington leaped and with two hands
held the putter over his head like a lance. Elated and dazed, he
then squatted to the left of the green, closed his eyes and
"tried to get my heart rate down."
To Montgomerie it was as familiar as heartburn. Four times
before he had been in a playoff, and four times he had lost,
including to Els at the 1994 U.S. Open. Then there was the '92
Open at Pebble Beach that Nicklaus congratulated him on winning
before Tom Kite stole it. Now another major was going into the
dumpster just behind Hogan's Alley.
He waited for the crowd to settle. He looked at Elkington, and
he looked at Elkington's caddie, Dave Renwick, the caddie he
could have had last year when Renwick parted with Jose Maria
Olazabal. In five majors since, Elkington and Renwick have gone
seventh, fifth, 36th, sixth and what sure looked like first. And
guess what? Renwick is a Scot.
Montgomerie looked at the putt from all sides and stepped up.
Somewhere in the silence of the moment, way above the green, up
the 53 steps to the famous clubhouse, a baby was crying.
Annie. Early voting: Baby of the Year.
After she stopped, Montgomerie missed the putt inches to the
right, let his double chin drop to his sunken chest, shook hands
with Elkington, walked to the side of the green where they were
already setting up for the victor's celebration, kicked the
flagstick and turned three shades past his original ruddy, right
"You could not have done any better," he said to nobody in
particular as he climbed those suddenly endless steps. "You live
your whole life, and it depends on one putt, and...it was
all out of my hands." Can a guy be allergic to majors?
For Elkington the best day, the clearest day, the most wonderful
day had finally arrived. "This," he said, "is the moment I've
waited for. I just can't believe my name is going to be on that
trophy, especially on there with Jackie Burke's."
And as he held Lisa and Annie close with one hand and the
fattest trophy in golf with the other, Elkington seemed to get a
little watery-eyed, and he looked a little dizzy, and his throat
got kind of scratchy.
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Fittingly, Elkington capped the red-number week with a 25-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole. [Steve Elkington] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Els was a driving force until his game deserted him during the final round. [Ernie Els] COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Montgomerie couldn't face another playoff loss. [Colin Montgomerie]
Can a guy be allergic to majors?
"What the hell do you want me to say?" Els moaned. "It was a
hard situation. Next time."