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Triple Threat
Jaime Diaz
July 28, 1997
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July 28, 1997

Triple Threat


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If Justin Leonard didn't have so much of it on his side, he might consider changing his last name to Time. That would remind everyone of the precise moment his British Open victory occurred, as well as its effect. With his closing 65 on Sunday, the 25-year-old Texan struck a telling and propitious blow against rampant Tigermania, that assault on the golf senses that has led some to believe that Tiger Woods not only can win major championships merely by showing up but also can turn the PGA Tour into a minor league during the weeks he doesn't play.

The fixation on Woods survived Ernie Els's U.S. Open victory at Congressional even though the powerful 27-year-old from South Africa demonstrated that he possesses a more complete, if less explosive, game than Tiger. But when the shorter-hitting though deadly accurate Leonard emerged last week as someone with the same sort of poise, potential and well-rounded game as Els, the peak of golf's pyramid suddenly became a competitive triangle. Woods, Els and Leonard have very different personalities, but because they're all single-minded, signally gifted and also single, they stand to become the most synergistic triumvirate since Arnold Palmer and Gary Player strained every fiber—Ban-Lon or otherwise—to slow down the Jack Nicklaus juggernaut in the early '60s. The original Big Three had a fairly short run, the chemistry fading after Palmer won his last major, at 34, in 1964. Because this Big Three is starting so young and because Woods's anticipated march on history is such a powerful catalyst, the new version should remain intact well beyond the millennium.

One might protest that Leonard, with one major and only two other Tour victories, isn't in the same class as Woods or Els. Or that 27-year-old Phil Mickelson, with 10 Tour victories, should be the third member of the new Big Three. Or that Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Nick Price, Tom Lehman and Nick Faldo—to name five of the 18 players who were higher on the World Ranking than Leonard going into the British Open—are more worthy. People have always underestimated Leonard.

While Mickelson defeated Leonard in a stirring finish at Phoenix last year, has distinguished himself in the Ryder and Presidents cups, and had won the most tournaments in the shortest amount of time since Nicklaus—until Woods showed up—his performance in majors has been uneven. Mickelson's putting, which used to make up for any lapses, has become alarmingly erratic. As brilliant as Mickelson's game can be, it is not as solid as Leonard's.

The other veterans can be dismissed in two words: too late. All of them are at least 32 and at the wrong stage of their lives to be embarking on golf's version of mission impossible: keeping up. Most are capable of playing the kind of golf that can equal anything but Woods's best, and they'll win some majors, but the years have stretched these players to the limits of their ability and, more important, to the limits of their desire. Lehman still refuses to capitulate to the idea that Woods's supremacy is inevitable, but most of his contemporaries, some of whom smugly projected that the kid would be humbled by the realities of the Tour, have either been struck silent or caught in Tigermania since Woods put on his headmaster act at Augusta. Chasing genius is a young man's game.

Leonard is certainly young, but he has what veterans call an old head. His disciplined, accuracy-oriented swing features a pronounced release of the upper body through the ball, which nearly eliminates any chance of twitchy hands producing a wild shot under pressure. It is a swing principle Woods is trying to master too.

Leonard, whose fresh-scrubbed look can't hide his intensity, also has the kind of edgy bond with Woods that makes for compelling competition. The two played against each other when Leonard was the top amateur in the country and Woods was a junior wunderkind, with Leonard usually coming out ahead. Their relationship, while respectful, contains traces of wariness, a distance that occurs naturally when two winners knock heads at an early age. "Tiger could see how mentally tough Justin was, and he wouldn't let himself get friendly," says Earl Woods, Tiger's father. "It was an instinctive competitive thing. He didn't want Justin to gain an edge."

Certainly, Woods has the edge for now and may never relinquish it, but Leonard established at Troon that he has enough game to join Els in some tag team Tiger taming. For a sport in need of a reality check, it was a victory that came just in time.