Originally created 08/15/97

Els, Woods, Leonard wow crowd at PGA Championship



MAMARONECK, N.Y. (AP) - The gallery oohed at Tiger's booming drives and aahed at Ernie's smooth swing, but at the end of the day, it was Justin's little wedges that brought in the low score among golf's major champions.

In the traditional opening-round threesome at the PGA Championship Thursday, the winners of the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open went off together: long-hitting Ernie Els, longer-hitting Tiger Woods, and wedge-wizard Justin Leonard.

The little guy finished on top with a 2-under round of 68 over Winged Foot Golf Club's 6,987-yard West Course. That put Leonard, the British Open champion, two shots off the lead.

Woods, the reigning Masters champ, and Els, who won the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, shot even par.

Leonard played a scrambling round worthy of Seve Ballesteros, hitting only five fairways and seven greens, but making up for it with brilliant wedge play and dead-on putting.

On the extremely difficult back nine, Leonard strung together seven consecutive one-putt holes. On four of those, all long par-4s, he got up and down from between 50 yards and 100 yards from the hole. Including his chip-in on No. 9, Leonard needed 11 putts over the final 10 holes.

Or consider this: On the 11 holes in which he missed the green, or could not reach the green because he had driven into deep rough, Leonard was a total of one-over.

"I got a good round today out of not such good ball-striking," Leonard said. Asked if he had anticipated needing three shots to reach so many of Winged Foot's long par-4s, Leonard laughed and said, "I was anticipating hitting a few more fairways."

Woods, 21, Leonard, 25, and Els, 27, are the leading edge of golf's next generation of great players, and their performance in Thursday's opening round suggested they likely will be around this weekend, making life tough for the veterans.

The youngsters may be brash, but they know who to go to for advice. Leonard said golf legend Byron Nelson told him to expect to be hitting wedge for his third shot into some of Winged Foot's par-4s.

"You have to realize that you're going to make bogeys and so is everybody else," Nelson advised Leonard. "When you hit it in the rough, just get it down there. ... You'll get a few up-and-downs."

On the 9th green, Leonard decided not to bother with the "up" part, hitting an intentional skull with his sand wedge from the rough beside the green into the cup for a birdie.

Both Woods and Els started off fast, getting to 3-under through seven holes.

Then, on the 8th, Els drove into the right rough, two strides off the fairway - and advanced the ball another two strides with his second swipe. He groaned as he saw his predicament, and his clubhead came through with a tossed-salad of grass wrapped around the clubhead. A third hack in the eight-inch rough put Els in front of the green, where he chipped and two-putted for a double-bogey.

Woods was in position to bring in a stellar score, standing on the par-5 12th fairway at 3-under and in the hunt for another birdie after a 320-yard drive. He was 240 yards from the green, which for Woods meant a "soft" 3-wood or a "nuked" 2-iron. What he hit was a "banana" 3-wood, his ball ending up under a lush Douglas fir tree beside the green. Two chops later and Woods was still in the right rough. He finally flopped the ball on and made a shaky two-putt for his double-bogey.

Neither Woods nor Els let themselves be bothered by these lapses. On the next hole after his woodsy adventure, Woods was laughing and joking with his caddie, Mike "Fluff" Cowan.

"Even par is never bad," said Woods. Then, perhaps thinking of the 7 he made on No. 12, he added, "The golf course will lull you into being too aggressive. ... You have to play smart and keep the ball below the hole."

Woods had much to be happy about, having missed only four greens on one of the most difficult golf courses in the world. He had a mediocre 32 putts - at least three more than top golfers like in a round.

Els had an up-and-down round, making five birdies, three bogeys and his double.

Asked if there were competitive juices flowing among the three major champions, Els demurred.

"I really concentrated on my golf game," Els said. "You have to make sure you concentrate on making pars and birdies instead of trying to match your game to other guys'."



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