TROON, Scotland -- Justin Leonard came to Scotland for the 126th British Open at Royal Troon hoping to gain experience to help him in future overseas trips and to gain enough points to help him secure a place on this year's Ryder Cup team.
By the time he was finished playing yesterday's final round, the 25-year-old Texan had taken home something even more valuable.
The claret jug.
It was presented to Leonard on the 18th green last night before a cheering crowd that included many of his fellow American players, including Tom Kite. The Ryder Cup captain had come back from the airport to see Leonard win his first Grand Slam title and offer his congratulations.
"Welcome to the team," Kite told Leonard after he waded through photographers and officials to give his protege a warm hug.
A closing round of 6-under-par 65 gave Leonard a four-round total of 12-under 272 and helped him overcome a five-shot deficit to third-round leader Jesper Parnevik of Sweden to win by a deceptively comfortable three shots. It tied for the second-lowest final round in British Open history.
It matched the largest final-round comeback in Open history, set originally in 1920. Leonard became the fourth straight American to win the British Open and also becomes the youngest Open champion since 22-year-old Seve Ballesteros won at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1979.
"It probably hasn't sunk in yet," Leonard said after his third victory as a pro (worth $418,875) and his second this year, following his win at the Kemper Open at Avenel in early June. "I'm sure it will sink in tonight and tomorrow and next week. I'm hoping that it takes a while to sink in."
For Parnevik, it marked the second time in the past three years that he had blown a tournament he has desperately wanted to win. It was even more painful than what happened in the 1994 Open at Turnberry, when Parnevik failed to look at the scoreboard and didn't protect a two-shot lead on the final hole.
This time, Parnevik knew exactly what was happening. By the time he reached the 18th hole yesterday, Leonard had caught him with a 15-foot birdie on the par-5 16th hole and passed him with a 25-foot birdie on par-3 17th. Parnevik's chance at a playoff disappeared when he failed to convert a 3 1/2 -foot birdie putt on 16 and then bogeyed the last two holes.
"This one hurt a lot more than Turnberry," said Parnevik, who finished second for the fifth time this year. "Even though my game didn't feel good all week, I have been riding a wave of positive momentum. I think the pressure was a little bit too much today. It was an uphill struggle all day. I had to scramble to save my life on every hole."
He added, "I felt like I had to hole a six- or 10-footer on every hole to save par. It lasted only so long." Playing with Fred Couples, whose laid-back approach helped the younger American relax, Leonard was merely trying to survive. After getting within a shot at 11-under with a six-footer for birdie at the par-4 ninth, then falling two shots back with a bogey at the par-4 10th, Leonard saved par from 10 feet at the par-4 11th.
Leonard had another 15-footer to save par at the par-4 15th, having hit two shots he didn't like.
"I looked at my caddie and said, 'Well, I'm going to knock this in, because that's all over with,' " said Leonard, whose confidence might have been founded in having 11 one-putt greens and a total of 25 putts yesterday. "Obviously, that was the tournament right there, because I didn't allow Jesper breathing room."
Parnevik was about to hit his drive on the 15th tee when the roar went up from the green more than 450 yards away. But when he stood over his 3 1/2 -footer for birdie at the 542-yard 16th hole minutes later, having hit a wonderful approach from the left rough, Parnevik glanced over at the scoreboard.
"I actually thought I had it to go one ahead," Parnevik said later. "It felt like, if I made that one, I was going to win. Then, all of a sudden, I came up to 17 and I watched his birdie on 17, and the air kind of went out of the sails for good."
After hitting his drive into the fairway at 18 and putting his approach safely on the green, Leonard started his victory march up the 18th fairway. It was, like the player himself, an organized, business-as-usual affair. No fans chasing him up the fairway, because Parnevik and Clarke were still on the course. No wild celebration by Leonard, just an appreciative wave.
"It was as if he had just won a match at the club with his friends," said Billy Andrade, who had finished last among those surviving the cut but had come back from the hotel with Brad Faxon to watch Leonard walk in. "Most guys would be jumping around hugging their caddie. It was like, 'Thanks, see ya.' "
Leonard and his caddie, Bob Riefke, were smiling.
And what were they talking about?
"I was telling him what color I was going to stain my deck back home," Riefke said later with a laugh.
After making his par, Leonard walked off.
The week of coming early to Troon to learn the course, just as he had come in 1995 and 1996 to qualify for the Open itself, had
paid off. Leonard had played 80 holes of practice, compared with two or three practice rounds for most. And the experience he had in winning the Kemper Open, when Mark Wiebe missed two short putts on the last two holes, had helped, too.
"I came back from five shots off at the Kemper," said Leonard, who had closed with a 67 there. "I told my folks last night, 'You know, I've done this before. There's no reason I can't do it again.' "
In the media tent last night, it was pointed out to Leonard that his name had already been engraved on the claret jug.
"After I looked at it, I remember Tom Lehman won last year and I had missed the cut and flown home," said Leonard. "I was watching the telecast and I remember seeing the engraver working on his name. Boy, does he do good work in a short time. Does he have a dry cleaner's in Dallas? That would be great."
Justin Leonard .. .. .. ..65-272
and selected followers
Darren Clarke .. .. .. ...71-275
Jesper Parnevik .. .. .. .73-275
Jim Furyk .. .. .. .. .. .70-279
Fred Couples .. .. .. .. .74-281
Mark Calcavecchia .. .. ..69-282
Tom Kite .. .. .. .. .. ..69-282
Davis Love III .. .. .. ..67-282
Ernie Els .. .. .. .. .. .69-282
Tom Watson .. .. .. .. ...71-282
Tom Lehman .. .. .. .. ...66-284
C. Montgomerie .. .. .. ..70-284
Tiger Woods .. .. .. .. ..74-284
Greg Norman .. .. .. .. ..75-287
Jack Nicklaus .. .. .. ...75-293
Complete scores. 7c
Pub Date: 7/21/97