Golf: Leonard worth his place in Open history

Andy Farrell on the level-headed Texan golfer who tamed the course at Troon
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The Independent Online
At school in Dallas, Justin Leonard wrote essays on Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. How the young Leonard fared in his history classes is not recorded, but it was probably one of his stronger subjects. Now he is a part of the history of the oldest and grandest championship in golf as winner of the 126th Open.

In doing so he rallied from five strokes behind to beat Jesper Parnevik and Darren Clarke by three strokes. Not since Jim Barnes in 1925 had a champion overcome such a deficit going into the final round. Statistically, his closing 65 equalled those rounds by Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977 and Seve Ballesteros at Royal Lytham 11 years later, and was one outside Greg Norman's 64 at Royal St George's four years ago.

As a performance, it compares favourably with those other daring raids on the silver claret jug. Leonard's place in history is assured, alongside Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite from the Lone Star state. Windy conditions not being unusual in Texas, he plays with an old fashioned flat backswing. "I would love to play golf in a tie and pull out some hickory shafts and get a mashie niblick," he said. "But I don't think my equipment company makes those clubs."

Yesterday, after the 25-year-old American had boarded a dawn flight across the Atlantic, his victory was acclaimed by the Royal and Ancient. "While you have to feel sorry for Jesper Parnevik, I think Justin Leonard will be one of the stars of the future," Peter Greenhough, chairman of the championship committee, said.

"He is a very level-headed young man," the secretary, Michael Bonallack, said. Leonard being nominated among Cosmopolitan's top 25 most eligible bachelors may have turned some heads, but not his own.

Leonard shares a flat in Dallas with his sister where the beds have to be made every morning. Brad Faxon joked that he probably arranges his drawer into colours. This is true.

Leonard is also a big fan of making lists. He became the fifth consecutive American winner at Troon after Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson and Mark Calcavecchia. He is the third American Open champion after John Daly in 1995 and Tom Lehman a year ago. And he is the third winner of a major under 30 this year after Tiger Woods, 21, at the Masters and Ernie Els, 27, at the US Open.

Leonard won the US Amateur title in 1992, a year after Phil Mickelson and two years before Woods started his three-year reign. In 1993, he was the star-in-the-making of the US Walker Cup side that crushed Great Britain and Ireland. A year later he turned professional and earned his US tour card without having to go to the qualifying school.

His first much-expected victory did not come until a year ago, and another followed last month. It came shortly after he decided to switch from his persimmon driver to the modern, big-headed metal scythes. He added 20 yards off the tee, whereas before he had lagged more than 40 yards behind Woods in the driving averages.

His temperament, though, was the key in a week when all the stars were meant to be on their games but could not cope with the test Troon presented. In the wind on Thursday, when the back nine averaged over 39, Leonard came home in level par 35. This was despite the fact that, in the strict definition of being on the shortest cut of grass, he did not hit a green in regulation.

"The guys with the strongest mental outlook were the ones that were going to do well," Leonard, who will be in the US Ryder Cup team at Valderrama, said. "You have to stick patient and realise you are going to make bogeys. At the same time, you have to be able to recognise a good bounce. I always look forward to playing courses like this. I enjoy running the ball up and around the greens. It is such a challenge, because there are so many different options."

When his achievement began to sink in during his speech at the prize- giving, he took his time. "I was thinking about my family," Leonard explained. "I was thinking about my parents and my grandmother and my sister. And about Randy Smith, my coach, and the members at Royal Oaks in Dallas and how crazy the men's locker room would be. I hoped somebody has videotaped it for me. My club bill is going to be pretty big next month."

Woods, who finished 24th, may not have taken over golf, but the twentysomethings are beginning to regain supremacy. Nick Faldo, who did not celebrate either his 40th birthday on Friday nor victory on Sunday, and Greg Norman, who could not hole a putt worth the name, continued their disappointing run in majors this year. A generation has moved on. The result was vindication for the R&A, who decided to throw open the gates to all under-18s, as long as they were accompanied by an adult.

Of the 176,000 crowd for the week, around 28,000 were juniors, as opposed to the normal figure of around 12,000. "We are very pleased with the effect the juniors had," Greenhough said. "Although you can't say that their behaviour was totally immaculate, there were only one or two calls of `You're the man', but generally the spectators were a real credit to the game." He could say much the same of the champion.