Justin Leonard stares down the putt one more time. Thirty feet from the hole, 17th green, Royal Troon, British Open, right to left break, inch and a half. He slaps his caddie on the back, takes a big suck on his cigar, guzzles a lager, sits back down on the green and finishes off the last of the pizza.
Pressure? What pressure? Hell, he made that putt four hours ago. Now it's 11 p.m., and he's tasting the sweetest mulligan of his life, pacing it off in the Scottish moonlight, feeling the green with his hands, remembering the smell, savoring the moment when he killed the dream of a curious Swede and won a British Open the Texas way, by stone-cold ambushing it.
Leonard is the buttoned-down, sawed-off 25-year-old Dallas native with HOGAN on his cap and Hogan in his eyes who decided to win the 126th British Open on Sunday and couldn't be talked out of it. He trailed the leader by five at the start of the final round and won. He trailed by two with five to go and won. Boat horns honked, trains sped by, 747s roared overhead, yet he won. Bright-white Scotsmen who had not had their shirts off since the days of William Wallace blinded his eyes; thousands of kids, all of whom were let in free, pestered Leonard for autographs between shots; yet he won. His chief opponent, Jesper Parnevik of Sweden, wore tight purple peg-leg pants, a white mesh shirt, white shoes, a tee behind his ear and a hat with the bill flipped up and the word SAP written on it, yet he won.
"You put the big heat on Justin—the most people, the most pressure, the biggest scrutiny, the biggest chance for distraction—and he thrives on it," says his Dallas-based coach, Randy Smith. "Put him in the middle of the ring, put him in the biggest circle, and he's gonna take out his bag of golf tricks and show you how he can use 'em. This kid ain't afraid of excelling."
You say this is the Tiger Woods era, and you are probably right, but Woods may have a stubborn Texas Chihuahua clamped onto his tail in Leonard, who has won two PGA Tour events and a major in the last 11 months. If you add 27-year-old Ernie Els to 21-year-old Woods and Leonard, you might have a Big Three starter kit. For the first time in history, three men less than 30 years old have won the first three majors of the year. Oh, and five of the last eight tournaments on the Tour. "I don't know," says Leonard's caddie, Bob Riefke, "but this guy has grit and determination you don't see very often."
If you didn't know about those qualities, you knew by last Thursday night, after this tournament opened with a ghoulish three-club wind from the Firth of Clyde that nearly blew the 5'9", 160-pound Leonard to Edinburgh. Troon is the place where, in 1951, the wind blew fish out of the sea onto the 4th green. Even the big guys were getting blown away. Somebody asked the wonderfully straight Colin Montgomerie how many fairways he hit all day. "Let's see," said Monty. "One, two, three...three."
Woods hit a four-iron into the wind 165 yards. When was the last time he hit a four-iron 165 yards? "I think I was 11," he said.
Leonard didn't hit a single green on the back nine that day, yet he shot even-par 35, maybe because he needed only eight putts. When this kid gets the putter rolling, you want to put your wallet away. The two-under-par 69 Leonard salvaged was his third best score of the week, but it probably won him a major.
As it was, when they had finally counted heads to make sure nobody was pinned to a porkpie cart somewhere, two wind players were leading with 67s—Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke, whose game was molded in one of the windiest places on earth, Royal Portrush outside of Belfast, and the U.S.'s Jim Furyk, whose swing is so awful the wind improves it.
Somebody replaced Brigadoon with Florida on Friday, all sun and calm blue skies, but somehow nothing much changed. Clarke shot 66 to keep a two-shot lead, and Leonard kept sinking everything that wasn't stuck under a clump of heather. He made two eagles in that second round on his way to a 66.