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3-WAY TIE MEANS PLAYOFF TO DECIDE U.S. OPEN CHAMP

SHARE 3-WAY TIE MEANS PLAYOFF TO DECIDE U.S. OPEN CHAMP

Bad lies, good fortune, favorable rulings, blown chances, high drama, low scores. Just too much to cram into one tournament.

So the good folks at the U.S. Open have extended their engagement at Oakmont Country Club an extra day, to see who among Loren Roberts, Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie will prevail in an 18-hole playoff and become their champion.Today's bonus round was made necessary when the little-known Roberts missed a 4-foot pressure putt on No. 18 Sunday and thus had to settle for a bogey and a place at 5-under, and then Els, playing behind him, had a wacky sequence at 18, which ended when he sank a 4-foot putt from the gut to salvage a bogey and earn an extra day's work today.

Montgomerie, a Scot who put together a relatively uneventful round of 1-under 70, was already in the clubhouse watching it all unfold on the telly.

"I actually feel I'm 1-up right now," Montgomerie said, "because they had the opportunities to win it and I didn't have the same opportunities. I feel confident for that reason."

The three are corralled together at 5-under 279. Alone in second place was Curtis Strange, who shot his fourth consecutive round of 70 Sunday to finish one behind the leaders.

Strange could have made this a foursome today, but he blew that with a bogey on the 17th hole.

As he watched the leaders finish, he said: "I wish someone would get to 6-under so I don't have to think about losing by a shot." Now he has to think about it.

John Cook was third at 2-under 282 after a round of even par Sunday, and three players - Clark Dennis, Greg Norman and Tom Watson - were tied for fourth place at 1-under.

You may ask yourself, first off, "Who are these guys?"

Els is a 24-year-old South African who is vying to become the first player from that country to capture the Open since Gary Player in 1965. Montgomerie, who turns 31 on Thursday, is a puffy Scotsman who comes into this playoff with the benefit of having participated in high-anxiety Ryder Cup matches in 1991 and '93.

And Roberts? The 38-year-old former club pro from San Luis Obispo is so obscure that ABC didn't start following his round on camera Sunday until the sixth hole - and he was 4-under at that point. Before taking the Nestle Invitational earlier this year, he had the dubious distinction of being the leading money-winner on the PGA tour among players who had never won a tournament.

He is also described in the PGA media guide as "the hardest worker on the tour."

"I think they said that because they didn't know what else to write about me," he explained.

This historic threesome came about first because Roberts' putter became a little tentative when it mattered most.

After Montgomerie had already signed his card - he had three birdies and no bogeys on the front side, then suffered through a harrowing string of three straight bogeys on Nos.11-13 - Roberts was lining up a putt that he wouldn't know until later would have won the tournament.

Tapping from four feet, he erred.

"It was a lousy putt," he admitted later. "I kick myself that I could have won the open with a 4-foot putt. But I won't, because I still have a chance."

Then Roberts smiled and admitted to having an understandable case of nervousness. "I'm not gonna lie to you," he said. "I had trouble getting that putter back."

If he thought he had trouble, he probably felt better after watching Els.

On his tee shot at 18, Els took out a driver and hacked one way left.

In punching out of that jungle, his ball landed on a small divot in the fairway, about 80 feet away from the pin. "I couldn't believe my luck there," he said.

Wait. It got worse.

When he tried to pitch it toward the flag, it popped up and went only about halfway, leaving him 40 feet away from a tournament victory - an extremely unlikely shot, given the torrid greens Sunday and the waviness of 18 - and two putts away from joining a playoff.

Needless to say, he got home with two putts, and took a "the glass is half-full" outlook on it all.

"I guess I was just happy to make that putt," he said.

In retrospect, it seemed as though Els might have wanted to use a different club off the 18th tee, which could have put him in a safe spot in the fairway. But he said later he didn't look at the leaderboard and didn't know the situation.

"I wanted to kick my backside when I looked at my drive and saw that 5-under was leading," he said.

So far, both Els and Roberts have commented on wanting to kick their own keisters. They'll have to wait until this morning to find out if Montgomerie will be willing to do it for them.