Justin Leonard masters wintry conditions to set up a terrific chance at his 2nd major title.
By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2002
CHASKA, Minn. -- They built the Metrodome for days like this, when the wind chills to the bone. The locals would disagree, but a dose of winter came to the Minneapolis suburbs Saturday, a perfectly British kind of summer afternoon that sent scores soaring.
Justin Leonard, who grew up in Dallas with a swing styled to keep the ball under the whipping Texas wind, didn't need a dome. On a day of survival, when the worst third-round scoring average in the history of the PGA Championship was recorded, Leonard managed the only score in the 60s at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
Leonard's 3-under-par 69 gave him a three-shot advantage over Rich Beem and a four-shot cushion over Fred Funk for today's final round. Perhaps most important, he had a five-shot cushion on Tiger Woods, who is seeking his third major championship of the year and ninth of his career.
"Under the circumstances, it was one of the better ball-striking rounds I've ever played," said Leonard, 30, the 1997 British Open champion who has seven PGA Tour titles. "If this was a regular event, I'd be ecstatic. But in a major, to give myself a chance to be in the last group, it's pretty special. It's a round I'll remember for a long time."
Leonard separated himself from the field with a back-nine 33 that included birdies at the 10th, 15th and 16th holes. He made one bogey for the round. Most impressive was his ability to hit fairways (12-of-14) and greens (14-of-18).
His 69 on a day when the scoring average was 75.878 was one of only four scores under par. There were just six scores at par 72.
One of those came from Woods, who hit what he called one of the best shots of his career during the conclusion to his second round Saturday morning to pull within two of the lead, then managed just one birdie in the wind in the third round.
For the fifth consecutive tournament, Woods failed to shoot in the 70s during the third round, something he has done three times in 12 tournaments this year. Saturday, it was understandable.
"I grinded my tail off," said Woods, who converted long par putts at the ninth, 10th, 12th and 16th. Finally, he couldn't convert at the 18th, where his drive went way right and he got a drop from a hospitality tent. He somehow got his second shot close to the green, but was unable to get up and down from 10 feet for par.
"I hate ending with a bogey. That really ticks me off. I hit the ball pretty solid and I made a lot of big putts I had to make."
If Woods is going to win his ninth major championship, he'll have to do what he's never done -- come from behind. In each of his eight major victories, Woods has either shared or held the 54-hole lead. He never has finished second.
The closest Woods has come without winning was at the 1998 British Open, where he finished third, one shot out of a playoff. He also finished tied for third at the 1999 U.S. Open, two shots back.
"All I have to do is just play well, make putts," Woods said. "It's really no big secret. There's only a few guys ahead of me, and I just need to go out there and play solid. This golf course is playing hard right now, with the wind blowing this hard. And with the pins where they are tucked, it's brutal out there."
Leonard, who was tied for the second-round lead with Beem, Funk, Mark Calcavecchia and Retief Goosen, completed 54 holes at 9-under 207. Beem, playing in his fourth major, shot 72 and was at 210. Funk had 73 for 211. Calcavecchia (74) was tied with Woods. Goosen dropped out of contention with 79. "On a day like this, Justin hits a nice, low, flat draw and he's got a great ball flight for wind like this," said Calcavecchia, who played with Leonard. "He really didn't (miss a shot). He hit a bad drive on the fifth hole and that was about it. He hit every other shot perfect on the back nine from what I could tell."
Leonard, who lost in a playoff at the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, then sank the clinching putt at the 1999 Ryder Cup, has transformed himself since. He changed his coach, his manager, his caddie, even his ball. Perhaps more important, he worked on changing his swing under the direction of Butch Harmon, whose most famous student is Woods.
The changes meant taking several steps backward before Leonard could move forward. He didn't qualify for the 2001 U.S. Ryder Cup team, among other lowlights.
"I felt like I've started to see the hard work pay off in the last year," he said. "I've played really solid the last three or four months. Those are the reasons I made the changes, to play on a more consistent level and to give myself opportunities like the one I have (today)."