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Leader Of the Pack
Alan Shipnuck
July 15, 1996
Western winner Steve Stricker will head a brash new class of Americans at Royal Lytham
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July 15, 1996

Leader Of The Pack

Western winner Steve Stricker will head a brash new class of Americans at Royal Lytham

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It might be time to add Intimidated PGA Tour Newcomer to the endangered species list that already includes persimmon drivers, rotary phones and, to hear Tommy Tolles tell it, ice in England. The remarkable success that the whippersnappers have had this year continued last week when third-year Tour pro Steve Stricker ran away with the Motorola Western Open at Cog Hill outside Chicago for his second win in a month and a half. Having already proved that experience is overrated when it comes to winning Tour events, Stricker and the rest of the Arnie-come-latelys will head to next week's British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes looking to disprove another shopworn old saw, the one that says only grizzled veterans well into their VH1 years can contend for a major championship.

Most of these young bucks will be playing in their first British Open. A few will be making their first trip to Europe. None will be happy just to be there. "Why go just to go?" asks David Duval, the 24-year-old who is ninth on the money list. "If you come in half-assed, you're going to play half-assed."

Adds Jim Furyk, 26, who has won a tournament in each of the last two years, "If I go over and play poorly, I'm not going to come home with a big smile and say, Boy, what a great experience that was."

Brashest of all may be Scott McCarron, the second-year pro who won in New Orleans in March. "One of us should go over and contend for the championship," he says, "if not all of us."

Figuring out who exactly us is can be a little tricky. For example, Phil Mickelson, 26, is out; in his fifth year, he's old news. Woody Austin, 32, is in; after all, he was the Tour's 1995 Rookie of the Year. The sprawling group is intriguing because the players are so different in style and substance. There is everything from the unorthodox but brilliant ball striking of Austin to the old-school finesse of 24-year-old Justin Leonard, who shapes his shots with a wooden driver; to the pyrotechnics of Duval, who looks out from behind his futuristic shades at one of the Tour's most explosive games; to the locomotion of Furyk, who has a swing funkier than George Clinton, but gets it done with grit and a flawless putting stroke.

Physically there is the fleshy rookie Tim Herron, winner of the Honda Classic in just his eighth career start, with his well-deserved nickname of Lumpy, and the sophomore Tolles, 14th on this year's money list, whose angular 6'1" frame looks as if it were fashioned out of barbed wire. Paul Stankowski and Paul Goydos, both of whom must play their way into the British Open, round out the crew, and they would seem to share little but their first names and the fact that both were living in oblivion until winning their first tournaments this season.

"It's an impressive group," says Tom Watson, 46, winner of five British Opens. "You can sense the baton being passed." But, adds Watson with a knowing smirk, "the British Open will be a new kind of challenge."

Stricker has to rate as the favorite among these greenhorns. Over the last three months he has been hotter than Jenny McCarthy, making eight straight cuts and logging his first career win, at the Kemper Open. That victory capped three years of steady progress as Stricker has gone from 50th on the money list as a rookie to 40th last year to fourth so far this season with $925,933, including the $360,000 for winning the Western.

If the Kemper established Stricker as a player, the Western installed him as a contender. For many the Western is the final Stateside British Open run-up. Most of the Yanks intent on playing at Royal Lytham will skip this week's Tour event in Virginia in favor of the Scottish Open, allowing them an extra week to acclimate. Some of them will then have to go through British Open qualifying. Though Cog Hill's number 4 course is hardly linkslike, it is weedy and last week was windy as well, so it provided a good barometer of whose games are in tune for the conditions in England. Factor in the record crowds—an estimated 45,000 squeezed in on Friday—and an excellent field that featured 19 of the Tour's top 25 money winners, and it's no wonder Stricker's 65-69-67-69-270 (18 under par and eight strokes better than the scores of Jay Don Blake and Billy Andrade, who tied for second) left his competitors raving.

"He's like the Kentucky basketball team," said Lee Janzen after the third round, when he found himself in second but five strokes behind.

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