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Ernie Els needed only a par on the 18th hole to win the U.S. Open. The 25,000 spectators at Oakmont Country Club knew it. The millions watching on TV knew it.

Ernie Els didn't know it.Because he wasn't watching the scoreboard on the biggest golf hole of his life, Els might not be the U.S. Open champion until Monday - or at all. He may never know what he missed.

"I'm kind of kicking my backside," he said.

For most of Sunday's round, Els was kicking everybody's backside as the can't-miss kid - the young South African who Curtis Strange predicts will be golf's next superstar - led the Open by as many as two shots.

He's never won a major American pro tournament - after all, he's 24 and has played in only 14 - yet he was about to win the U.S. Open. All he needed was a par on the par-4 18th, considered perhaps the toughest closing hole in golf but one that had been friendly to him with two pars and a birdie in the first three rounds.

Els had hit a driver into the trees on the par-4 17th, but the shot luckily landed in a drop zone, and, following a very favorable drop, he actually ended up with a birdie putt, but missed it.

If he had known going to 18 he had a one-shot lead over Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie, he would have bagged his driver to set up a much-safer shot into the green. But he hadn't looked at the scoreboard since No. 15, preferring not to know what everybody was doing.

"I had used driver there and I wanted to hit it as far as I could," he said. "If I knew I was one shot ahead, I would have it a 2-iron or a 3-wood but I wanted to get it down there as far as possible. And I hit just a terrible shot."

Luckily, and luck was on his side much of the day, he had a good lie near 15th tee. He had gotten a similar break on No. 1, when he sprayed his tee shot way left into a drainage ditch but was given a drop because his line was blocked by a portable TV tower.

A tree was in his way on 18, but, in a bit of youthful aggressiveness, he was ready to gamble and go for the green, at least until his caddy intervened.

"He said, `Whoa! Five-under is leading.' ... I just chipped it out of there about 80 yards - right into a damn divot," Els said. "I said, `Oh, this can't be happening.' I couldn't believe it. ... It was just unbelievable. As it was, I was fortunate to make bogey."

He was. He got more turf than ball on his chip and left himself about 45 feet from the pin on the fringe, his only shot to win the Open without a playoff.

He thought about going for it all, but knew that might be a suicidal gamble on Oakmont's fast-track greens, so he lagged his putt and left himself about a 2-footer. He made it to force Monday's three-way playoff with Montgomerie and Roberts.

If only he had known how close to winning the biggest tournament of them all. After his second-place finish at last week's Buick Classic, many of the other touring pros proclaimed Els was destined to win sooner or later.

It almost was very soon. Now, it may be much later.

"Maybe if I had looked at the scoreboard, it would have been a different story," he said.