Big move from the little Texan at the PGA

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

CHASKA, Minn. -- Justin Leonard has built a reputation of gritty comebacks in major tournaments under the toughest conditions.

A five-stroke rally on the final day won him the '97 British Open at Royal Troon. He made up the same deficit to capture The Players Championship a year later. In the Ryder Cup, he came from four holes down with seven to play to deliver victory for the Americans.

The PGA Championship will present a different challenge.

Over the final six holes in vicious winds at Hazeltine, Leonard turned a one-stroke deficit into a surprising three-stroke advantage Saturday.

''I feel like I've got to play a great round of golf,'' Leonard said after a 3-under 69 in which he didn't miss a shot over the final four holes. ''It takes that to win a major championship.''

This time, he'll need it to protect a lead -- three strokes over the happy-go-lucky Rich Beem, four over high-fivin' Fred Funk, and five shots over Tiger Woods, who has never won a major from behind.

Having won seven of the last 12 majors, however, Woods might be the biggest threat.

''Does he intimidate me? Sure, at times he does,'' Leonard said. ''He hasn't done it this week, and if I go out and do my job, then he won't tomorrow, either.''

Leonard was the only player to break 70 on a day in which the gusts reached 38 mph, a mere zephyr in Texas.

He was at 9-under 207, the first time Leonard has been a 54-hole leader in a major since he and Davis Love III were tied after three rounds in the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot. Leonard won his only major earlier that year at Royal Troon.

He hasn't been a factor in the majors since then, but he's in perfect position now.

The last five players who have been in the lead going into the final round of the PGA Championship wound up with the Wanamaker Trophy.

''I don't have any expectations of winning,'' Beem said after two bogeys on his final five holes left him with a 72. ''It takes something special to win a major, and I don't know if I've got it. It's going to be really tough to catch him.''

Of greater concern was Woods.

Is five strokes a safe margin?

''I'd like to say that, but I came back from five shots to win a major championship,'' Leonard said. ''It's safe depending on how I play. But if I struggle or stumble, guys are going to feel like they've got a chance.''

Leonard will be paired with Beem, who is playing only his fourth major.

Funk (73) and Woods (72) will be in front of them.

At stake for Woods is a chance to become the first player to win all three U.S. majors in the same year -- the American Slam. Woods already won the Masters and U.S. Open.

''All I have to do is play well, make putts,'' Woods said. ''It's really no big secret. There's only a few guys ahead of me.''

The guy who holds all the cards is Leonard.

While the 30-year-old Texan has only seven PGA Tour victories, they include a couple of big ones. Along with his victory in the '97 British Open, he won The Players Championship a year later against the strongest field in golf.

''This is a tough track, and with the wind blowing like this, he hits the ball pretty flat. It suits him,'' Woods said. ''He'll fight, he'll grind it out and he'll get up-and-down.''

At least Woods broke 80.

That wasn't the case the last time the wind blew this hard in the third round of a major, when Woods shot an 81 to lose hope of winning the Grand Slam.

Hazeltine played nearly four strokes over par, and only four players managed to break par. Despite the gusts -- one so hard that an umbrella blew out of a spectator's hands and flew away like a beach ball -- the course was soft from 3 1/2 inches of rain overnight.

Still, that Leonard was the only player to break 70 spoke volumes.

This wasn't the worse conditions he has faced. There was a junior tournament in Abilene, Texas, that Leonard said on a scale of 1 to 10 ''was about a 12.''

''I enjoy playing in difficult conditions,'' he said. ''Whether it's due to wind or the greens are firm, I enjoy it when par is a good score. I feel like the game becomes more strategic.''

Woods, meanwhile, hit a shot that no one will soon forget when he returned Saturday morning to complete his second round.

From a fairway bunker, he was 202 yards from the hole on No. 18. The ball was below his feet. He barely had enough room to stand without his legs brushing against the side of the bunker. He had to clear the lip, clear a cluster of trees 72 yards away and get to the back of the green into 35 mph gusts.

He hit 3-iron into 12 feet for birdie.

''That's the single greatest shot I've ever seen him hit,'' said caddie Steve Williams, who has been on the bag for 30 victories and seven majors.

The end of the second round left five players tied for the lead, the second straight major there had been that large of a logjam at the top after 36 holes.

But that's where the similarities with the British Open ended. An eight-time major champion shot in the 80s, but it was Tom Watson (83), not Woods.

Yes, the wind was outrageous, but the weather was warm, the course was soft, and reasonable scores were available to anyone who kept the ball in play.

No one did that better than Leonard and Beem.

Beem, the former stereo salesman playing in only his fourth major, grabbed the lead with a birdie on the opening hole and never gave it back until his only hiccup -- a poor tee shot into the trees, a bold approach that went into the bunker and a bogey on No. 14.

Leonard was on his heels the back nine, starting with a 7-iron that stopped 4 feet away for birdie on No. 10, and another birdie from 10 feet on the par-5 15th. The wind-tested Texan built the largest lead of the day with a 7-iron into 2 feet on the 16th.

Two pars later, he was leading by three.

Leonard was surprised to have that large of a margin, but still aware of what lies ahead.

At least this time he won't be doing the chasing.



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