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.
This is an article from the July 28, 1997 issue
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
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.
Every day at Troon masses of humanity followed Woods everywhere
he went, especially the rough, and he went there a lot. But on
Saturday, Woods was actually in the fairway and fighting back
into contention with an electric 64 that, for once, didn't
include a round-eating triple (he made 7 on the par-4 11th on
Thursday and would make 6 on the par-three 8th on Sunday) or an
ever-popular quad (he made 8 on the par-4 10th on Friday). After
starting the third round 13 shots behind, he passed 48 guys en
route to tying the course record (set by Greg Norman in 1989)
and came within six shots of the leader, Clarke, who was about
to tee off when Woods walked by him on the way to the press
tent. You want something that will shrink the band of your
underwear? Woods just shot a 64 to close on you like a Porsche,
and you haven't hit a shot yet.
Still, Clarke played 10 holes before he started losing it on
Saturday, and then he hit a shot so wildly off the tee and into
the Scottish botany that we never saw his shoes again. He blew
his four-shot lead and fell two shots behind the new leader,
Parnevik, with his flipped lid, slash pockets, long, pointy
collars, wide leather belt, freckle-tight pants, tiny cuffs,
Swedish blue eyes, and wild, curly hair. ("He looks like a lad
that might grease your car," a Scot was heard to say.)
Parnevik may look like the pro at the Dr. Seuss Country Club,
but he is half brilliant and limitlessly talented. "Sometimes I
feel like I can do anything I want on the course," he says. An
accomplished magician, he can shoot 68 with two five-irons and
an umbrella if he feels like it. He birdied four of the last
five holes in the first round, the only man to break par on the
back nine that day, and then he changed his putter the next
morning. "It didn't feel lucky," he told his playing partner,
Brad Faxon, who could not get over it. "He makes everything in
sight," Faxon said, shaking his head, "and changes putters!"
And got better. At one point, Parnevik used the new putter to
two-putt from 75 yards out on the fairway. "I couldn't come up
with a better shot to hit," Parnevik explained. Hey, you! Way up
there! I said tend it!
Parnevik is famous in so many ways, but mostly as the guy who
forgot to look at the scoreboards in the 1994 British Open at
Turnberry and lost to Nick Price by a shot. "I think Jesper is
going to win," Montgomerie said on Saturday night. "It seems
that you must lose one of these before you win one."
Woods looked as if he might pull off Miracle No. 3,006 on
Sunday, when he birdied the 4th and 5th holes and had a simple
five-foot putt on the 6th for a third straight birdie. Missed
it. Then he had a three-foot putt for a birdie on the 7th.
Missed it. Then he went to the Postage Stamp, the tiny par 3,
and got canceled for good, making a triple bogey out of the
"You know, the U.S. Open is where Tiger learned you can't make a
big number," Earl Woods told Tiger's agent, Hughes Norton, last
"And Troon," said Norton, "is where Tiger learned you can't make
three big numbers."
All in all, Woods's terrible trio cost him 10 shots. Three pars
instead, and he finishes second. Just as at the U.S. Open in
June, he made more birdies and fewer bogeys than the winner.
Maybe the hero is the hero because he goes for hero pars, but a
few bogeys out of this kid instead of 8s and we might have
So the rest of Sunday came down to Jesper versus Jasper, which
is what the members at Leonard's home club of Royal Oaks in
Dallas call him. Of course, it was much more than that, it was
Hats Worn Too Flipped Up versus Hats Worn Too Far Down. Leonard
wears his cap pulled so far down you cannot see his nose, much
less his eyes. He wears it slightly lower than a Gotti bagman
slinking through the Gambino neighborhood and slightly higher
than a man taking a nap.
But, from the beginning on Sunday, it was Parnevik's fans who
were covering their eyes. As Leonard made the turn in front of
Parnevik, he had trimmed the five-shot lead to one. Parnevik
made it two with a huge birdie on the diabolical Railway hole,
the 11th, after a man in a passing train leaned out the window
and hollered, "Fool!" Then it all began to go poof! on the
magician. He bogeyed 13 and missed a makable birdie try at 14.
In the meantime Leonard started a remarkable streak in which,
said Riefke, "his eyes got real big and the holes started
getting real big." He made a terrific blind save on the 15th
followed by a chip to 12 feet that went dead center. At the
par-5 16th, he made a terrible chip for his third shot. "Anybody
in this room," Leonard told the huge press contingent afterward,
"could've gotten it closer than that." Again, Leonard stared at
a 15-footer. The chip ticked him off so much that he told
Riefke, "Screw it. I'm just going to make this thing. Screw
everybody." He deposited it for a birdie. You've got to like a
guy who can putt for vengeance.
Suddenly, Leonard was tied for the lead. Behind him, Parnevik
was starting to play the 16th. Leonard hit his three-iron to the
back of the green at the 223-yard par-3 17th. "I looked at it,
and I thought, Hmmmmm. Perfect spot. A ball out on the right.
And it just felt good," he would say later. Joe LaCava, who was
caddying for Leonard's playing partner, Fred Couples, gestured
to Riefke with his eyes that the putt was as good as made.
Riefke turned his palms up and whispered, "I know! I know!" Back
in Dallas, teacher Smith knew, too. "It's like he gets this
Shivas Irons thing in his eyes. You just know." They all were
right. The hole and the ball made for each other like long-lost
relatives. Center cut. Birdie. A giant Scottish roar. "The hair
on the back of my neck stood straight up," Leonard said.
Back on 16, Parnevik had an easy four-footer for birdie that he
thought was for the lead. He pushed it out of the hole. That was
bad, but you should've seen his face when he got to the 17th tee
and saw that instead of being tied, he was one down. Maybe this
reading-scoreboards thing is overrated.
Parnevik bogeyed 17, and when Leonard two-putted the 18th for a
par and a 65, good for 12-under 272, Parnevik was done. Just for
agony, he bogeyed 18 too, to lose by three and fall into a tie
for second with Clarke, a backpedal that cost him $168,000. As
he came off the 18th green, Parnevik looked so glum you were
sure his brim was going to go limp. "Turnberry hurt," he said,
"but this one is going to hurt longer. I think the pressure was
too much." Poor guy. It was his fifth runner-up finish this year.
For Leonard, there was nothing to do but admire his name,
inscribed on the trophy not five minutes into his reign as
British Open champion--"Wow, pretty fast work," he said. "Does
he have a dry cleaners in Dallas?"--and then the tiger-striped
female streaker on the 18th green. "I got to see this," he said
as he bolted from a ring of writers. Relax. He's single.
If golfers were stock, Leonard would be about to split. He's
gutty, winning from five back at Troon. He's no longer a midget
off the tee with his sentimental persimmon driver. He has been
killing a metal Titleist driver and three-wood for two months,
and the metal woods have added a wonderful edge to his game--the
eagle. He has a game that seems to fly at all the majors. He's
yet to finish out of the top 10 in a PGA, he wound up seventh at
this year's Masters, and he has made steady improvement in the
U.S. Open, from 68th to 50th to 36th last month. He has won
where you have to win to be great: the U.S. Amateur, the NCAA
championship and now the World Heather, Gorse and Haggis
Championship. He comes from money but doesn't play for it. Even
when he wasn't exempt for the British, for instance, he hopped
the pond twice to try to qualify against all those Nigels and
Simons, at no small expense. "I just learn so much about myself
over here," he said, "and about the history of the game."
(Hello, Scott Hoch? Are you listening?)
On Sunday night Leonard became part of that history, the kid who
put on one of the best final four-hole blitzes in British Open
lore, and he didn't want to let it slip through his golf glove
yet. After it was over, after he'd done all the interviews and
the champagne toasts and packed the silver claret jug, he
gathered his caddie, his friend Corey Pavin, a couple of Scots
he'd befriended, a couple of pizzas from the hotel restaurant,
more than enough pints of lager from the bar, the best cigars he
could find and a couple of disposable cameras, and sneaked out
to the 17th green. He plunked the comestibles down on the spot
where he had sunk a putt and a Swedish heart.
For a while they just sat there, nobody saying much of anything,
most of their mouths being used for huge smiles. Finally,
Leonard said, "This is too good," and he sat back and blew cigar
smoke at the moon and let wash over him the memory of the finest
moment so far in what looks like a fine little life.