Leonard's emergence didn't begin at Troon Consistent: The '97 British Open winner takes his putting touch to Royal Birkdale as he tries to become first repeat champion since Watson in 1983 -- at the same course.

July 16, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SOUTHPORT, England -- The defending British Open champion is 5 feet 9, taller than his driver, so unflappable he probably wouldn't notice if you baked scones on his cap, weighs all of 160 pounds, heavier than the Claret Jug, smiles about as often as you can find an empty line at a Royal Birkdale concession stand, so efficient he makes lists of lists and so good on the greens that he was the best putter in all of Troon, Scotland, for one day last July.

That would be Justin Leonard, the 26-year-old Texan and heir to the Lone Star State's mantle as its greatest golfer, a title previously held by Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, neither one ever quite good enough to win the British Open as the youngster did.

Now, you might say that Leonard just happened to get hot at the right time, but that's sort of like explaining that Troon runner-up Jesper Parnevik failed because his Popsicle purple slacks gave him nausea and thus caused him to hit drives so far off line that Sherlock Holmes should have been called in.

There's a more reasonable explanation for Leonard's three-shot victory over Parnevik and Darren Clarke. It was Justin time.

Signs of Leonard's emergence into golf's big time were there, all along, if anybody had cared to pay attention. He won the Buick Open in 1996, his second full year on the PGA Tour. He won the Kemper Open in 1997, even though Mark Wiebe basically handed it to him by missing two short putts.

That brought us to Royal Troon, famous for victories by Arnold Palmer in the 1962 British Open and Tom Watson in 1982 and for being the home course of Colin Montgomerie, whose father was the club president. It didn't help Montgomerie much, but Leonard, who hadn't even seen the place before, did quite well indeed.

Five shots behind Parnevik after three rounds, three shots behind Clarke and tied with Fred Couples, Leonard closed with a 6-under 65 and won going away. Leonard's 12-under total of 272 tied for the seventh-lowest score in British Open history -- Greg Norman's 267 in 1993 at Royal St. George's is the best.

Leonard won the British Open on Troon's treacherous back nine, and there is one terrific putt that stands out. That would be the 30-foot, downhill roller, slight right to left break, a birdie putt that fell into the middle of the hole and gave him the edge he needed.

Mark Brooks, another fellow Texan, said Leonard was a cut above and simply proved it.

"He just made some really critical putts," Brooks said. "He putted it better than anyone else under pressure."

True enough. If you're like Brooks and counting pressure putts, look at Leonard's on the back nine that last round at Troon: par-saving 10-footer at No. 11 15-footer for par on No. 15 two-footer for birdie on No. 16, then his slow-rolling birdie at No. 17.

Gene Sarazen, the 1932 British Open champion, said Leonard's putts on the back nine were as good as he has seen, considering the circumstance.

"This golf today, if you can't putt, you might as well stay at home," Sarazen said. "This young man Leonard doesn't need to stay at home much, if you know what I mean."

In less than four full years on the PGA Tour, Leonard already has six top 10s in majors -- two at the Masters, three in the PGA and his victory at the British Open. He also won the Players Championship in March.

Now that his time to defend that major title has come, beginning today at Royal Birkdale, where Watson was the last to defend his title in 1983, Leonard said his pro golf experience is going to help him out.

"I look at it as sort of a progression," he said. "I've had a lot of learning experiences, not just from winning golf tournaments, but from losing them, too.

"When I came out here, I didn't have expectations on where I would be in four years, five years, or whatever. I came out wanting to see my game improve. And I've done that."

In the end, Leonard wound up as the youngest British Open champion since Seve Ballesteros in 1979 and with the biggest fourth-round comeback since Jim Barnes in 1925. Of the 16 players who began the final round at Troon under par, Leonard was the only one to shoot in the 60s.

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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