When you reach the highest level of golf, someone else carries your clubs. You have to carry your story. On Sunday, in the dying afternoon heat, four unlikely men, with four unlikely stories, came down the mean stretch of the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club, trying to slay the course they called the Monster, a beast that often waits until the final holes to blow its fire.

None of the four was a household sports name — no Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo or Tom Watson here — but all were top-notch golfers. And their personal dramas? Whoa. It was like an afternoon soap.

One guy was from Michigan, had played for the Wolverines, and what a fairy tale it would be if he could win here at home, in front of his college buddies, right? Another was a talented near-misser, always a bridesmaid, who’d played so many dinky tournaments in his life, he could remember one where animals attacked each other on the course. What a fitting payoff a title would finally be for him, no?

The third contender was one of the top golfers in the game who was still waiting to win a Big One. He had lost his father in a plane crash, and here it was, Father’s Day, and wouldn’t that be a perfect story? And then there was the last guy, who had it all going for him a few years ago, lots of early tour success, and then he crashed a dirt bike in the Arizona desert, messed up his finger, couldn’t grip a club, and spent three years on a couch, wondering whether he would ever play golf again.

Such was the stage for the good-bye round of America’s toughest tournament on one of its least forgiving courses. With five holes left, only one stroke separated the four golfers — John Morse, Tom Lehman, Steve Jones and Davis Love III — and all anyone really knew out there was this: Somebody was going to win his first major here.

And three other stories were going to get longer.

The first to fall off the horse was Morse, the Michigan man, who at 38 had been a long time away from the Maize and Blue. Still, local fans had sang parts of “The Victors” when he passed, and yelled “Go Blue!” And for a while, it looked as if he might have the college magic. He was one stroke from the lead — and then he teed off into the rough on the 16th. He took a quick drag on a cigarette as he walked toward his approach shot, as if he suddenly knew this was the final mile. He made a weak putt for par, missed by an inch, and bogeyed out of the picture.

Love was next. He had charged down the back nine, going from even to three under in five holes, and much of the golf world was rooting for him. Many consider him the best American golfer to never win a major, and besides, he has golf all over his gene pool. He is the son of a former touring pro, Davis Love Jr., who was competing in the Masters the day his son was born.

Father taught son the game, and was his only coach and best adviser — until eight years ago, when he was killed in a plane crash. Even the thickest audience could see the natural drama of Davis — who was a runner-up in last year’s Masters, and fourth in last year’s U.S. Open — winning his first major on Father’s Day.

This, I suppose, is why playwrights don’t work in the sports section. The only lessons Davis learned Sunday were 1) You can’t always get what you want, and 2) When you think you’ve hit a putt hard enough, think again. After sharing the lead on the 16th, Love bogeyed the 17th by a few inches on his putt, then came to the 18th — which had been eating golfers all week — and missed a makable birdie putt, missed the next easy par putt, and fell off the rainbow with a good-bye bogey. Farewell, wonderful story.

“I came a little closer this year,” Love said, “but I’m a lot more disappointed.”

Then there were two. The final chapter

Lehman had been the leader coming into Sunday, having tied the course record with a five-under 65 Saturday. Unfortunately, the lankly, likable fellow — with a tanned face that is somewhere between Kevin Costner and Bob Dole — has often been better on Saturdays than Sundays. He had the lead on the last day of the 1994 Masters, and lost to his playing partner, Jose Maria Olazabal. He was tied for the lead on the last day of last year’s U.S. Open, and lost to Corey Pavin.

Now, here he was again, playing career Ping-Pong with his partner for the day, Steve Jones. The two had been friends for a while. When they started the round, and Jones hit into the rough, Lehman — who knows Jones has found religion — quoted something from the Bible, a line about being “strong and courageous.”

They’re quoting the Bible to each other? Hmm. Not exactly Michael Jordan-Gary Payton, is it?

So be it. Lehman took a commanding lead, then lost command. He went from four under to two under — bogey on the 10th, bogey on the 12th — and came into the final hole tied with Jones. All the other golfers were finished now. This was it for the tournament and the national title. In the trailer, Love waited with his one-under score, in case — he hoped, he hoped — there was some kind of tie.

There would be no tie. Lehman, hitting first, put his drive into the amoeba-shaped bunker. Jones, a tall man, playing with sunglasses all day, put his tee shot in the fairway. That pretty much told the tale. A few minutes later, Lehman’s last gasp at a miracle washed away when his par putt went long, and Jones knocked his final shot home, then shook his fists and opened his arms to his children, his wife, and the world of great stories.

For here was a guy who had won three tournaments in 1989, and hadn’t won anything since. He nearly gave up golf after his dirt bike injury — “I was with a friend, he went down, I tried to avoid him and woke up with a sprained ankle, a separated shoulder, and ligament damage in my left ring finger” — and each time he came back to the clubs, he couldn’t hold them correctly. For a while he sold a car wash product called Dry Wash, “until I realized I wasn’t a salesman.”

Dry Wash?

He began the slow journey back. Two years ago, he earned less than $9,000 on the PGA Tour. Last year, he earned $234,000. On Sunday, he made more than that combined, and as his two young kids jumped into his arms, he gave golf a much- needed human touch, a father winning on Father’s Day.

“I can’t believe it, really,” Jones said. “I read this book last week, on Ben Hogan, and how he won here in 1951. And it really helped me. He talked about just focusing on the shots, not anything else. That’s what I did today. I didn’t look at the scoreboard. At the 18th, I asked my brother how we were doing, and he said we were tied for the lead. And I knew I just had to golf against Tom.”

Do you believe it? Why not? It’s a perfect end to a marvelous tournament — hats off, Oakland Hills — that began in a thunderstorm and ended in a heat wave, and in between saw a farewell from a legend, Nicklaus, the humbling of several superstars (Norman, Faldo) and a final, goose-bumpy family get- together on the 18th, from a guy who couldn’t hold a club a few years ago. It’s an American golf tournament, the biggest we have. And let’s be honest: What do Americans like better than a good old-fashioned comeback story?

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