If Justin Leonard didn't have so much of it on his side, he
might consider changing his last name to Time. That would remind
everyone of the precise moment his British Open victory
occurred, as well as its effect. With his closing 65 on Sunday,
the 25-year-old Texan struck a telling and propitious blow
against rampant Tigermania, that assault on the golf senses that
has led some to believe that Tiger Woods not only can win major
championships merely by showing up but also can turn the PGA
Tour into a minor league during the weeks he doesn't play.
The fixation on Woods survived Ernie Els's U.S. Open victory at
Congressional even though the powerful 27-year-old from South
Africa demonstrated that he possesses a more complete, if less
explosive, game than Tiger. But when the shorter-hitting though
deadly accurate Leonard emerged last week as someone with the
same sort of poise, potential and well-rounded game as Els, the
peak of golf's pyramid suddenly became a competitive triangle.
Woods, Els and Leonard have very different personalities, but
because they're all single-minded, signally gifted and also
single, they stand to become the most synergistic triumvirate
since Arnold Palmer and Gary Player strained every
fiber--Ban-Lon or otherwise--to slow down the Jack Nicklaus
juggernaut in the early '60s. The original Big Three had a
fairly short run, the chemistry fading after Palmer won his last
major, at 34, in 1964. Because this Big Three is starting so
young and because Woods's anticipated march on history is such a
powerful catalyst, the new version should remain intact well
beyond the millennium.
One might protest that Leonard, with one major and only two
other Tour victories, isn't in the same class as Woods or Els.
Or that 27-year-old Phil Mickelson, with 10 Tour victories,
should be the third member of the new Big Three. Or that Greg
Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Nick Price, Tom Lehman and Nick
Faldo--to name five of the 18 players who were higher on the
World Ranking than Leonard going into the British Open--are more
worthy. People have always underestimated Leonard.
While Mickelson defeated Leonard in a stirring finish at Phoenix
last year, has distinguished himself in the Ryder and Presidents
cups, and had won the most tournaments in the shortest amount of
time since Nicklaus--until Woods showed up--his performance in
majors has been uneven. Mickelson's putting, which used to make
up for any lapses, has become alarmingly erratic. As brilliant
as Mickelson's game can be, it is not as solid as Leonard's.
The other veterans can be dismissed in two words: too late. All
of them are at least 32 and at the wrong stage of their lives to
be embarking on golf's version of mission impossible: keeping
up. Most are capable of playing the kind of golf that can equal
anything but Woods's best, and they'll win some majors, but the
years have stretched these players to the limits of their
ability and, more important, to the limits of their desire.
Lehman still refuses to capitulate to the idea that Woods's
supremacy is inevitable, but most of his contemporaries, some of
whom smugly projected that the kid would be humbled by the
realities of the Tour, have either been struck silent or caught
in Tigermania since Woods put on his headmaster act at Augusta.
Chasing genius is a young man's game.
Leonard is certainly young, but he has what veterans call an old
head. His disciplined, accuracy-oriented swing features a
pronounced release of the upper body through the ball, which
nearly eliminates any chance of twitchy hands producing a wild
shot under pressure. It is a swing principle Woods is trying to
Leonard, whose fresh-scrubbed look can't hide his intensity,
also has the kind of edgy bond with Woods that makes for
compelling competition. The two played against each other when
Leonard was the top amateur in the country and Woods was a
junior wunderkind, with Leonard usually coming out ahead. Their
relationship, while respectful, contains traces of wariness, a
distance that occurs naturally when two winners knock heads at
an early age. "Tiger could see how mentally tough Justin was,
and he wouldn't let himself get friendly," says Earl Woods,
Tiger's father. "It was an instinctive competitive thing. He
didn't want Justin to gain an edge."
Certainly, Woods has the edge for now and may never relinquish
it, but Leonard established at Troon that he has enough game to
join Els in some tag team Tiger taming. For a sport in need of a
reality check, it was a victory that came just in time.
B/W PHOTO: JOHN TITCHEN The Nicklaus, Player and Palmer rivalry peaked in 1964. [Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer]