SONOMA, Calif. -- Loren Roberts was 12 years and about 3,000 miles removed from that 4½-foot putt. That one that had been for par on the 72nd hole of the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont CC. If it had gone in, Roberts would have been a national champion, a late-blooming 38-year-old former assistant pro scaling the tallest mountain in golf. When it didn't, he was bound for a playoff that he would lose to Ernie Els.
"It was a terrible putt," Roberts said that day. "I'm not going to lie to you. I had trouble taking the putter back."
On another Sunday, on another 72nd hole, this time at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at Sonoma G.C., Roberts found himself facing another 4½-foot par putt. It wasn't for a U.S. Open, but for a 51-year-old golfer -- regarded as one of the best putters in the business, just as he was a dozen years ago -- it meant a lot.
If Roberts made it, he would win the 2006 Schwab Cup points race and earn a $1 million annuity. If he missed, he would finish second to Jay Haas and have to settle for the $500,000 second-place award. "Oh, yeah," said Roberts, "I knew what it was for, but I've been second my whole career, so there you go."
Lasers take the guess work out of such things now. Roberts had 56 feet on his first putt, and after hitting it too hard, 56 inches for par. Four feet, eight inches between the "Boss of the Moss" and a million bucks.
He thought this 4½-footer was going to break slightly left-to-right. The one at Oakmont had, too. "I hit it right at the left edge," Roberts explained, "and that's where it went. I shouldn't have hit [the first putt] that far by, but my speed was off all day."
Haas was standing nearby outside the clubhouse, telling a couple of reporters how he felt to squander the points lead with a scratchy weekend of golf. He couldn't see the green, but he could hear it. There was a groan. Haas thought it might for Jim Thorpe, who was paired with Roberts in the final group and was polishing off a two-stroke victory over Tom Kite in the tournament.
But someone's radio confirmed that it was for Roberts. Haas grew silent. "That's too bad," he said after a long pause, "he's not supposed to three-putt the last hole."
Both Haas and Roberts were in uncharted territory, both trying to finish a season at No. 1 for the first time in their professional careers. They came into the Champions Tour's final event of the year with Haas ahead by only 126 points. When Thorpe took control Sunday, the duo was left to duel for year-long supremacy.
The computer permutations of the projected finish made for an entertaining afternoon. Haas kept the lead until Roberts' 14-foot birdie on No. 14 put him ahead by 38 points. Haas changed that on the 16th, when his eagle put him ahead by 20 points, but when Roberts birdied the 16th a few minutes later, he led by 16 points, a margin he maintained coming to the par-4 18th, which Haas parred by two-putting from 73 feet to finish at 11-under 277.
But Roberts arrived at the final hole far from confident about his game. "Loren missed a lot of putts the last two days," said Thorpe. "He wasn't the Loren that we usually see on the putting green. Coming to the last hole, you never would think he would three-putt and not win [the Schwab Cup]. Just goes to show you we are human, and we think about it. But there is a certain zone that players get in, and I didn't see him in that zone the last couple of days. You could tell he wasn't quite satisfied with his putting stroke, the speed of his putts. Something just wasn't quite right."
Roberts had left himself a five-footer for par on the first hole and a seven-footer for par on the second. He sank those but never felt right on the greens. "I was just struggling with the putter all day," he said. "The putts I did make just barely crawled in there."
When the pivotal par at No. 18 didn't, Roberts dropped from solo fourth place to T-4. Haas finished with 3,053 points to Roberts' 3,033, and he also won the Arnold Palmer Award as leading money winner. "I don't think either of us had our games today," said Haas, "but it came down to the last putt, though. That's pretty amazing that it did."
Charities will benefit regardless of what happened on a 4½-foot putt. Haas just ended up with more for organizations near his South Carolina home than Roberts will get to spread around in Memphis. But for Roberts, the largesse will come after a letdown.
"Winning is the whole deal out here," Roberts said. "The thing was to win the whole deal. Today was for Player of the Year and the Charles Schwab Cup and everything else."
A measly 4½ feet just got in the way -- again.
Bill Fields is a senior editor for Golf World magazine