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Golf briefs

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001

Leonard masters wind for lead at Mercedes

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Justin Leonard made a few changes in his swing for his own sake, not in an effort to catch Tiger Woods. He couldn't complain about the results Thursday in the Mercedes Championships.

Leonard found his groove in the fierce trade winds for 6-under-par 67 in the first round of the winners-only PGA Tour event for a one-stroke lead over Ernie Els.

Woods, in his first tournament of the season after his record-breaking 2000, made a glaring mistake that cost him. Trying to hit a driver off the fairway on the par-5 ninth, he pulled it into waist-high weeds and had to make a 4-footer for bogey.

Still, the defending champion controlled the trajectory of his shots beautifully in the wind and wound up with 70, only three out of the lead and his 48th consecutive round at par or better on the PGA Tour.

"I shot the worst score I could have possibly shot, but I'm still right there," Woods said.

Leonard missed the Mercedes a year ago after failing to win a PGA Tour event for the first time since 1995, so the Texas Open champ was thrilled to be in Maui. He played like it on a warm, windy day, despite a couple of long three-putts for bogeys on the front nine.

"The holes that I'm supposed to score low on, I feel like I did, with little wedges and things like that," Leonard said. "I played pretty well through the elements."

Els, a semifinalist in last week's Match Play in Australia, gave himself a good chance at Kapalua. A year ago he matched Woods shot for shot until losing on the second hole of a playoff, when Woods sank a 40-foot birdie putt.

Els took his lumps on the par-5 fifth by misjudging the wind and not clearing a 100-foot gorge in front of the green. He made up for it on the 633-yard closing hole with a 5-iron from 250 yards to within 6 feet for eagle.

The wind was difficult all day. On the first hole, Woods played a simple flop shot from behind the green, about 20 feet behind the flag. His chip faded into the wind, landing 6 feet short. He made the putt for par, just like he seemed to do throughout last year while winning nine times, including three straight majors.

Woods drove the 398-yard sixth hole and two-putted from 65 feet to get to 2 under and appeared to be poised to make his way up the leaderboard.

But from the ninth fairway, straight into the wind, he pulled his driver into bushes so thick he hit a provisional in case he couldn't find it. He found his ball, along with a dozen others in the same area. From there he hacked into a bunker, came up short of the green from the sand and walked away with bogey on a hole he figured to make birdie.

Webb master

ORLANDO -- For two years, Karrie Webb has dominated women's golf. Her next conquest is to outdo herself. The 26-year-old Australian begins defense of two Player of the Year titles today in the season-opening LPGA Classic at the Grand Cypress Resort.

"I don't want to go out thinking I'm going to try to top last year or the last two years," Webb said. "If it happens, great."

Two years ago, it was Annika Sorenstam who was coming off three titles in four seasons, and Webb was considered one of her most likely challengers. In that span, Webb has not only overtaken Sorenstam, she has come close to doing to the LPGA what Woods has done to the PGA Tour. She has won $3.46-million, nearly $1.2-million more than second-place Juli Inkster won in the same span.

Webb won seven tournaments last year -- two fewer than Woods on the PGA Tour -- and earned enough points to be inducted into the Hall of Fame once she has been on tour 10 years.

She opened last season by winning her first four events.

"I love the start of every year," Webb said. "We're all back at zero. It's like, ready, set, go."

TUCSON OPEN: Along with Tim Herron, Glen Day and Willie Wood, who each have at least one title, Kevin Sutherland, Geoff Ogilvy and Tim Clark shot 5-under-par 67 at a PGA Tour stop in Arizona that lacks the stars, who are playing in Hawaii. Ogilvy and Clark are rookies playing their first tour events as pros. Bernhard Langer and Curtis Strange led a group of six tied at 68.

IT'S NO GREEN JACKET, BUT ... Jack Nicklaus will receive the first ESPY Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony in Las Vegas, broadcast live at 9 p.m. Feb. 12 on ESPN. Nicklaus, owner of a record 18 major professional titles, will be honored for his "greatness, longevity and class," said Maureen Murray Quinn, executive director of the ESPY Awards. ESPN has handed out the ESPYs since 1993.

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