Not many mutual fund managers can boast that they beat the rip-roaring

S&P 500

. So if you're one of the few who outdid the index -- not only in the one-year, but also in the three-, five-, and 10-year periods -- don't you think you'd brag a bit?

By that measure,

Lincoln Capital Management

, which has subadvised the

(VWUSX) - Get Report

Vanguard U.S. Growth fund for more than a decade, should have plenty of bragging rights. Not only did the fund deliver a 40% return last year -- better than the S&P by a full 11 percentage points -- it racked up a long-term record that is just as impressive. It has gained 27% a year on average for the past five years (in the top 7% of its large-growth category for the time period) and 21% annually for the past 10. And all that with below-average risk ratings.

But you won't catch J. Parker Hall, Lincoln's longtime president, flaunting those figures. He's the first to admit he had a "monster tailwind" of late and that it was his "sector" rather than the firm's "smarts" that propelled the fund to recent chart-topping returns. Indeed, a quick look at U.S. Growth's top holdings shows that market conditions should have treated the fund very kindly. Its portfolio is packed with the biggest of the big-growth names that have directly benefited from a flight to quality:

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

,

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

,

Procter & Gamble

(PG) - Get Report

,

Pfizer

(PFE) - Get Report

and

Lucent

(LU)

.

Yet don't accuse Hall & Co. (he shares stock-picking duties with nine other analysts) of simply chasing the hottest trend. They were leaders, not followers, on the go-go growth bandwagon. The Chicago-based firm was using bottom-up fundamental analysis to direct it to strong, steadily growing companies long before the market's latest love affair with big names.

"It's all fundamentals," Hall explains. "No earnings momentum, price momentum or things like that. You simply had to have the courage or conviction or both to have a representative weighting in the large-cap growth-weighted stocks."

That's a strategy U.S. Growth sticks with even when conditions aren't quite so hospitable. In 1993, for example, when the fund lagged the S&P by 12 percentage points, U.S. Growth stayed fully invested, even though it was value, rather than growth, that led the day. "We're very focused -- have very little style drift. Historically, all the value added in our returns comes from selectivity rather than sector rotation," he says.

So what stocks are they selecting in this market?

Cisco

(CSCO) - Get Report

. The computer networker is one of U.S. Growth's biggest bets. "It's kind of a conservative way to play the Internet because of the character of their products," he says. "They have technology and marketing that is unsurpassed. Plus, they're actually earning money. The good things that are going on in technology seem to pass through Cisco's hands one way or another."

Chase Manhattan

(CMB)

. "It's a much stronger, better-diversified bank than any other money-center bank and most of the large financial services companies," he says. "That's been a very good call for us."

CVS

(CVS) - Get Report

. The drugstore chain is "a very important holding," Hall says. "Not cyclical, local and very well managed."

You might say the same about the fund itself. You'll find no loads or 12b-1 marketing fees here, and the expense ratio is a rock-bottom 0.41%. But that's not to say Vanguard U.S. Growth has enjoyed only smooth sailing since its inception. Talk about baptism by fire! Was there ever a more inauspicious time to start up a mutual fund? It was the end of August 1987, just weeks before the big market crash, that these guys decided to set up shop

"We lost a bigger percentage of capital faster than any manager in the history of the world. We were managing for six weeks and were down by a third," recalls Hall.

And Hall doesn't promise investors any better cover if his big-cap growth favorites move out of favor. This is one fund that will not suddenly shift to smaller-cap or more value-based investing as the market winds change. It is definitely not an all-weather holding.

"There will not be any solace to shareholders if the market implodes," Hall warns. But he does promise to outperform the appropriate benchmark three years out of every five. "Sounds pretty damned dull, but few people do it," he says.

Of course, that kind of boring is welcome in almost any portfolio.

Celebration Time

Who says it doesn't matter? I was so excited I almost even put on the pointy party hat. As far as I'm concerned, this was one of the biggest causes for celebration, even confetti, in recent memory. Yes, the week of March 15 witnessed a truly historic event, one well worth noting.

The Boss

finally took his well-deserved place in the

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

.

What? Oh yeah, the

Dow

hit 10,000 -- if only for a few seconds -- too. And yes, that also is significant, a chance to stop and take "stock," so to speak. But will I actually be doing anything because the Dow added a digit? No way. I'm certainly not prepared to predict the psychological reaction of millions of investors. That sounds a lot like timing to me. And the bottom line is: The reasons I'm in the market haven't changed. I'm saving for retirement and for my two daughters' college education. I'm not changing my time horizon or risk tolerance, so I see no reason to change my strategy upon sight of another zero, no reason to bet all of a sudden that stocks won't continue to do better than other investments in the long run.

So when the Dow does finally hit 10,000 and actually stays there through a close, I won't be standing in line to take money out of my mutual funds. But if history is any guide, you will catch me waiting in line -- a ticket line -- for a chance to see

Bruce Springsteen

again in concert this summer.

April 15 is fast approaching. For some insights that may help you with your return, read our series, TSC Does Mike Bauer's Taxes. Yes, we really do a reader's tax return to illustrate how tax laws apply to real people. And join the series author, TSC tax reporter Tracy Byrnes, and Martin Nissenbaum of Ernst & Young for a Yahoo! Chat Tuesday at 5 p.m. EST.

Brenda Buttner's column, Under the Hood, appears Thursdays. At time of publication, Buttner had no positions in the funds mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks or funds. While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, Buttner appreciates your feedback at

TSCBrenda@aol.com.