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1995 77th PGA / RIVIERA : He's 23 Going On Less Than 71 : Golf: Leonard is nine strokes under par and seven behind the leader regardless of what his birth certificate says.

August 13, 1995|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The weight of being the youngest player in the 77th PGA Championship dawned on 23-year-old Justin Leonard on the last hole Friday.

"I pulled my tee shot on 18 and was right next to Dave Stockton's plaque," Leonard said.

Leonard stared down at the spot in the kikuyu rough where Stockton blasted a three-wood 244 yards to 12 feet of the pin to beat Sam Snead in the 1974 L.A. Open.

As Stockton holed out to win, Justin Leonard sucked away on his pacifier, having not yet turned 2.

"There is a lot of history here," Leonard said as he stood on the elevated putting green, the Riviera Country Club course in his backdrop, "and a lot of great players who have won tournaments on this course."

Despite admitting to having a noticeable lump in his throat on the first tee Saturday, Leonard did not buckle. In fact, he birdied the first two holes.

Leonard followed Friday's round of 66 with a one-under-par 70 and remains in the hunt at his first PGA Championship.

His three-round score of 204 leaves him seven shots behind leader Ernie Els.

Making the cut might have satisfied Leonard on Wednesday. Now, he isn't conceding anything.

"There have been a few guys younger than 23 to win tournaments," Leonard said. "I just try to look at it from that point of view. I feel like I belong here. I think that's one of the most important things to help me feel comfortable."

Leonard, the 1994 NCAA champion out of the University of Texas, offers an interesting contrast to Els, the hulking South African who is about 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds.

Leonard has been left to take up the "little man" charge from Corey Pavin, who missed the cut.

At 5-9 and 150 pounds, Leonard is known in Texas as the Gutty Little Longhorn.

Els hits the ball farther and harder than Leonard does in his dreams, but that doesn't mean Leonard won't be on Els like a gnat on bull.

"I'm going to play aggressive," Leonard said. "A lot of it depends on what kind of start I get and what kind of start Ernie gets. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility, though I wouldn't think my odds would be very good."

How about off the board?

As matchups go, Leonard versus Els is Muggsy Bogues versus Shaquille O'Neal.

"I know what you're getting at," Leonard said. "I'm not going to overpower any golf course. I kind of have to sweet talk them, romance them."

Differences?

"I play every course differently than Els," he said. "I hit driver almost every hole, he probably hits some three-woods. He's got a different game."

It's not only weekend hackers who envy the big hitters' game.

Leonard and tour-mate Jeff Sluman remember playing a practice round with Davis Love III a while back and wishing they could walk in his spikes just once.

"We were talking about how much money we would give to be able to hit one of his drives, just pick a hole and say: 'This is where I want my Davis drive.' It was a pretty good sum of money."

Same goes with Els.

"There are times when I'm envious," Leonard said, "but I'm not going to hit it the way they do. I've adjusted my game, I like the way I play a golf course. It's fun for me. I've got to keep my head in it for 18 holes, and that's a challenge."

Last year about this time, Leonard was wrapping up his education at Texas, completing a business degree in four years.

Then, it was off to see the world.

Leonard barely avoided having to attend qualifying school last fall by finishing 126th on the money list. The cutoff is 125, but Leonard got in because three players ahead of him were non-tour members (Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie).

When Leonard steps to the tee today, the final round of his first PGA, there will not be much to draw upon.

He has had some nice moments on tour, finishing second at the Western Open and fourth at both the Kemper and Doral Ryder.

He also won the U.S. Amateur championship in 1992.

He knows that won't offer much comfort.

"It was a different situation," Leonard said. "In those tournaments, I was more one of the people to beat. This week, I don't think too many people would put me in that category, excluding myself and anybody else here that I'm not going to go to dinner with tonight.

"But the way I feel, if I play well, I belong here. I just have to go and see what happens tomorrow."

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