SOUTHPORT, England -- If the young guns of golf want to make inroads this year, they will have to start at the game's oldest championship.
When Justin Leonard celebrated his British Open victory last year in Generation X fashion -- sharing a pizza with friends on the 17th green of Royal Troon under the glow of a Scottish night -- it signaled a changing of the guard:
-- Tiger Woods, only three months past the legal drinking age, who was crowned the youngest Masters champion ever.
-- Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open winner and still only 27.
-- And Leonard, at 25 playing with the concentration of Ben Hogan in his prime.
One year later, the old guard is fighting back.
"The old guys never went anywhere," said Tom Lehman, the British Open champion and PGA player of the year in 1996, who turns 40 next year. "It's just that the younger guys played a little better last year."
This year has been different.
Woods put the green jacket on 41-year-old Mark O'Meara at the Masters. At The Olympic Club last month, nine-year veteran Lee Janzen outdueled 41-year-old Payne Stewart at the U.S. Open.
Fred Couples, 38, let the Masters and the Byron Nelson Classic slip away, but still has two PGA Tour victories and is enjoying his best year since 1992.
John Cook and Scott Simpson, both in their 40s, also have won this year. And Tom Watson, the five-time British Open champion showed at Colonial that he still has what it takes to win at age 48.
"I still believe that I can swing the golf club and hit the ball straight," Watson said. "I just hope that I can continue to play the way I am playing, and make the decision about whether to play the Senior Tour very difficult."
The juniors have not exactly disappeared. Els, Woods and Leonard have all won this year, but the only 20-something player who has been a threat every time he tees it up is David Duval, a two-time winner who finished a stroke behind O'Meara at the Masters.
"There are so many good players now in the world, and a lot of them happen to be young," O'Meara said. "But the fact is, I've actually played some of my best golf over the last three or four years. Tom Watson has been playing some extremely good golf."
And that's what could make the 127th British Open one for the ages.
The Open returns this week to Royal Birkdale, a course where virtually every hole is framed by sand dunes -- great for the gallery, but grueling for the world's best players trying to gauge the wind blowing in from the Irish Sea.
The fact that 14 players have won the last 14 majors speaks of the depth in golf, especially with the emergence of so many young players. But Generation X has not been as forceful this year -- the 30-and-over set has won 19 of 25 PGA Tour events.
Woods, the first $2 million player, has been in the 60s only 11 times in 36 rounds since the Florida swing began in March. Three of those rounds came at the BellSouth Classic, his only victory in America this year and the only time he has been in Sunday contention since Bay Hill.
"I've been right there -- haven't been able to get over the hump," Woods said. "I think this second half of the year will be better than it was last year. I'm playing better than I was at this time. So, maybe I can carry that over, because last year I didn't win at all" after the Western Open.
Els was primed for a big year until injuring his back at the Buick Classic the week before the U.S. Open. He decided not to play Loch Lomond this week to give his back more rest.
Jim Furyk has 21 top-10 finishes in the past 18 months, best on the PGA Tour, but he still hasn't won a tournament since the Hawaiian Open in February 1996. Phil Mickelson has a victory in each of the past six years -- the longest streak on tour -- but hasn't contended in a major since flaming out at the PGA Championship two years ago.
Leonard, trying to become the first champion to repeat since Watson in 1983 at Royal Birkdale, has only cracked the top five in two tournaments this year, but one of those was a five-stroke comeback at The Players Championship, more proof that he can raise his game at the biggest events.
Except for the U.S. Open, where he has never finished higher than 36th, the last time Leonard finished outside the top 10 in a major was at the 1996 British Open.
He shares the view of O'Meara and Lehman, that more young players simply means they will have more chances to win.
"I don't look at anybody as a young guy or an old guy," Leonard said. "Golf isn't a sport where age makes a difference. Obviously, a guy who is 40 and has won majors is going to have a little more experience than somebody who is 22 or 23. But I think that age is not as big a factor as some people make it out to be."
Lehman regards it as one of many cycles in golf. He likes to refer to the beginning of the decade, when Americans were lucky to win two majors in one season.
Just four years ago, Nick Price of Zimbabwe won the British Open and the PGA, Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain won the Masters and Els won the U.S. Open. It was the first year no American won a major since before the Masters was created in 1934.
"The media was writing off the U.S. players, saying there are no good U.S. players," Lehman said. "Of course, the U.S. players have won almost every major since."
Not quite, but close.
Since Price won his consecutive majors to close out 1994, Americans have won 11 of the past 14 majors.
An American victory at Birkdale would give them the last five majors, which would be the longest since 1984.
And Americans are enjoying a new round of success on the British Isles. During an 11-year stretch starting in 1984, international players won every Open except 1989, when Mark Calcavecchia won in a playoff.
Americans have won the last three, and two of those champions -- Leonard and John Daly -- were in their 20s.
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