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Coming of Age in a Major Way

Golf: Leonard's British Open victory continues trend of sport's biggest tournaments being won by players in 20s.

July 22, 1997|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TROON, Scotland — Attention, please: Young adults at work here. Yes, there's a greening process going on right now in golf and it doesn't have anything to do with watering the putting surfaces.

Now that 25-year-old Justin Leonard has won the British Open, it seems pretty clear that if the players winning majors get any younger, they're going to need learner permits to drive their golf carts.

It's a youth movement unlike anything golf has ever seen before on a major level.

Tiger Woods won the Masters at 21, then Ernie Els won the U.S. Open at 27. Leonard's victory on the sandy, treeless links course of Royal Troon, completed a youthful trifecta of historic proportions.

It is the first time that a year's first three major titles were won by players in their 20s. It's an entirely different swing set.

And in surroundings were age is measured by centuries and not years, Leonard stands out as the youngest British Open champion since Seve Ballesteros won at Royal Lytham in 1977 at 22.

Leonard, a taciturn Texan from the Ben Hogan school, is so deliberate that he arranges his socks according color and jokes about making lists of lists. But on the golf course, show him Woods and Els and Leonard feels he either has to raise the level of his game or get run over.

But Leonard said Woods and Els have also meant something else to him.

"Maybe they've raised my expectations a little bit," he said. "I don't play harder or practice harder because of them, but maybe coming in here and having seen Tiger do so well, having seen Ernie do so well, maybe I thought it's OK to go out and win a tournament like this being the age I am. Maybe that was in the back of my mind somewhere."

Leonard stepped quickly into golf's big time with what he managed in the last round that began when he was five shots behind. His final-round 65 which overtook Jesper Parnevik meant a three-shot victory and matched the British Open record for the biggest last-round comeback for a winner, set in 1925.

Only three months ago, after Woods' record-breaking 12-shot victory at Augusta National, there were more a few who wondered if anybody could beat him in a major. Els and now Leonard have answered that question.

At the U.S. Open, Woods finished tied for 19th, 10 shots behind Els. Woods tied for 24th at Troon, 12 shots behind Leonard and two shots behind Els, who tied for 10th.

Leonard may have won the British Open on the first day at Troon when he was one of seven to shoot at least par on the back nine that played directly into a strong wind. And that came from a player who is only 5-foot-9 and ranks No. 161 on the PGA Tour in driving distance.

"A lot of guys put themselves into a hole on Thursday and I was able to avoid doing that," Leonard said.

On Sunday, he also avoided bogeying No. 11 and No. 15 when he twice sank vital par-saving putts. His 15-footer on No. 15 preceded back-to-back birdies on No. 16 and No. 17 that deflated Parnevik.

It was such a rousing finish that Ryder Cup captain Tom Kite drove back to the golf course from Prestwick Airport to congratulate Leonard and welcome him to the Ryder Cup team.

As the Claret Jug rested on the table in front of Leonard in the interview room afterward, Brad Faxon, Billy Andrade and Tom Purtzer briefly interrupted the questions and answers to congratulate Leonard.

When he thought about it, Leonard said he's a different player than a year ago, but not solely on the course.

"I'm more confident," he said. "I believe in myself."

Woods and Els have said the same thing about themselves . Now Leonard also owns what Woods and Els already had, the weight of a major title behind their words.

Better get ready for what they try next on the golf course. As far as major titles go, they've got young ideas.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A MAJOR CHANGE

WINNERS, 1997 MAJORS

Masters: Tiger Woods, 21

U.S. Open: Ernie Els, 27

British Open: Justin Leonard, 25

Average Age: 24.3

*

WINNERS, MAJORS, 1990-96

Oldest: Hale Irwin, '90 U.S. Open, 44

Youngest: Ernie Els, '94 U.S. Open, 24

Average Age: 34.5

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