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'Big 3' set for major rivalry Woods, Els, Leonard taking off together

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- Their rivalry has developed in the past two months, as they became linked by victories in this year's first three major championships.

It began when Ernie Els joined Masters champion Tiger Woods by winning the U.S. Open at Congressional in June. Then Justin Leonard joined Els and Woods by winning the British Open last month at Royal Troon.

When the 79th PGA Championship gets under way this morning at famed Winged Foot Golf Club, and when they tee off together at 8: 55 a.m. much of the attention will focused on golf's new "Big Three."

"I think that the best thing that happened for the game was Tiger winning at Augusta," Jack Nicklaus said yesterday. "What it's doing, it's going to make all the other guys play harder. They're going to have to bring their game up to the level to compete with this young man. But you also found that there are other players who can play."

Nicklaus compared the emergence of this threesome of twentysomethings to his own rivalry in the early 1960s with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

"Certainly Tiger is going to need rivalries, competition, no different than when Arnold came along," said Nicklaus, who like Woods was the youngest in his group. "I sort of liken what Tiger did to what Arnold did in many ways. I think the game has gone through a bit of a lull in terms of somebody dominating the game for the last 10 or 15 years. It's good for the game."

Said Woods, "It's going to be neat to see because we're going to be playing against each other for about 20 years. And then when we get into our 40s, we'll see some young kids kicking our butt."

Rivalries have long been a part of the sport, dating to the 1920s when legends Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones dominated the sport. Then there was the rivalry in the 1940s among Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. They were born within months of each other, with Nelson and Hogan growing up together as caddies in Texas.

"It's like any business," the legendary Nelson, now 85, said yesterday in the locker room at Winged Foot. "When somebody starts doing better than you, you try to copy them or do something even better than them."

For their part, this latest group of burgeoning rivals have tried to downplay the competition between them, whether it is for major titles or corporate sponsors.

"I personally want to go out there and play as best as I can," Els said. "If on a day I beat Tiger or Justin, whoever it might be, so be it. But this is not like tennis where you play directly against the guy on the other side of the net. We've got 156 players [actually 150] players here this week and you have to beat those players and the golf course."

It seemed for a while as if Woods was going to dominate the tour. He won two of his first seven tournaments after turning pro last summer. He won three of his first eight this year, including his record-setting, history-making victory at the Masters.

"After the Masters, a lot of people wrote he might win all four majors," Nicklaus said. "But there are a lot of guys who can win."

What makes this rivalry different than others golf has witnessed over the generations is not so much the proximity in age, but the fact that all seem to be at similar stages of their careers.

What also makes it different is that they have yet to play against each other head-to-head, down the stretch in even a regular tour event. In fact, today marks the first time Els and Woods have played together since Woods turned pro.

There was a 10-year age difference between Palmer and Nicklaus, just as there was a decade between Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Nelson hit his prime long before Hogan, and was retired prematurely when Hogan dominated the game.

Els is the oldest of the group at 27, but is finally living up to the hype that has followed him since winning the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Leonard is 25, but has progressed more slowly than the others in adjusting to the tour. Woods is 21, but has been playing competitively since age 3.

"I hope it is the future of golf," said Leonard, who also won this year's Kemper Open in June. "I hope I'm a part of it. It's great to be mentioned along with players of Tiger and Ernie and Phil's caliber."

It was interesting that Leonard would include Phil Mickelson in the mix. At 27, Mickelson has won as many PGA Tour events as the other three players combined -- 11 -- but is 0-for-17 in major championships. It is a statistic that has left him perplexed.

Though Mickelson denied yesterday that it bothers him -- "I haven't even thought about it," he said coldly after his practice round -- comments after his recent victory in the Sprint International indicate the opposite is true.

"Guys I grew up with and competed against are winning majors," Mickelson said at Castle Pines two weeks ago. "I feel there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to do it as well."

Mickelson has finished third in majors twice, coming in seven shots behind Nick Price in the 1994 PGA at Southern Hills and six shots back of Nick Faldo at last year's Masters. He has been in serious contention only a couple of times.

"Despite who won this year, and it could have been Nicklaus winning all of them, the disappointment for me is being out here for five years and not winning one," said Mickelson. "Not only that, I really thought at this point in my career, I really would have won more than one. To have zero is kind of a step back. I wonder, 'Why is this happening?'

It could happen here.

And golf's "Big 3" will welcome its newest member.

NOTES: Former U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin, who has been in a major slump the past 18 months, withdrew because of the death of his father. Former Woodmont pro Bob Boyd, now an executive with a golf management company in Wilmington, N.C., is one of 24 club pros in the field. The Atlanta Athletic Club will be the host of the PGA Championship in 2001, the PGA announced.

(Today's tee times, tomorrow's times)

6: 40 a.m., 10: 52 a.m.: Ron Philo, Jr., John Hickson, Rob Wilkin; 6: 49 a.m., 11: 01 a.m.: Doug Martin, Mike Standly, Ignacio Garrido; 6: 58 a.m., 11: 10 a.m.: Brandel Chamblee, Pete Jordan, Ronnie Black.

7: 07 a.m., 11: 19 a.m.: Mike Brisky, Kevin Sutherland, Len Mattiace; 7: 16 a.m., 11: 28 a.m.: Wayne Grady, Hal Sutton, John Mahaffey; 7: 25 a.m., 11: 37 a.m.: Darren Clarke, Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo.

7: 34 a.m., 11: 46 a.m.: Per-Ulrik Johansson, Ben Crenshaw, Craig Stadler; 7: 43 a.m., 11: 55 a.m.: Bob Tway, Paul Azinger, John Daly; 7: 52 a.m., 12: 04 p.m.: Andrew Magee, Paul Goydos, Duffy Waldorf.

8: 10 a.m., 12: 22 p.m.: Fred Couples, Jesper Parnevik, Frank Nobilo; 8: 19 a.m., 12: 31 p.m.: Clarence Rose, Ed Fiori, Dudley Hart; 8: 28 a.m., 12: 40 p.m.: Payne Stewart, Nick Price, Steve Elkington.

8: 37 a.m., 12: 49 p.m.: Stuart Appleby, Joe Ozaki, Tim Herron; 8: 46 a.m., 12: 58 p.m.: Brad Faxon, Lee Westwood, Tom Watson; 8: 55 a.m., 1: 07 p.m.: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Justin Leonard.

9: 04 a.m., 1: 16 p.m.: Larry Mize, Jay Haas, Curtis Strange; 9: 13 a.m., 1: 25 p.m.: Tommy Tolles, David Duval, Robert Damron; 9: 31 a.m., 1: 43 p.m.: Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins, Jeff Sluman.

9: 40 a.m., 1: 52 p.m.: Darrell Kestner, Russ Cochran, Kirk Triplett; 9: 49 a.m., 2: 01 p.m.: Vijay Singh, Ian Woosnam, Lee Janzen; 9: 58 a.m., 2: 10 p.m.: Don Pooley, Jim Carter, Chris Perry.

10: 07 a.m., 2: 19 p.m.: Kelly Gibson, Billy Andrade, Tom Byrum; 10: 16 a.m., 2: 28 p.m.: Brian Henninger, Mike Hulbert, Jay Don Blake; 10: 25 a.m., 2: 37 p.m.: Mike Burke Jr., Frank Dobbs, John Mazza.

10: 34 a.m., 2: 46 p.m.: Steve Schneiter, Jay Overton, Bret Taylor; 10: 52 a.m., 6: 40 a.m.: Christopher Toulson, John Stone, Mark Fuller; 11: 01 a.m., 6: 49 a.m.: James D. Mason, Pete Oakley, Bob Boyd.

11: 10 a.m., 6: 58 a.m.: Glen Day, Mark O'Meara, Costantino Rocca; 11: 19 a.m., 7: 07 a.m.: Olin Browne, Sam Torrance, Jim Furyk; 11: 28 a.m., 7: 16 a.m.: Fred Funk, Billy Mayfair, Guy Boros.

11: 37 a.m., 7: 25 a.m.: Craig Parry, Scott Hoch, Yoshinori Kaneko; 11: 46 a.m., 7: 34 a.m.: Paul Stankowski, John Cook, Lee Rinker; 11: 55 a.m., 7: 43 a.m.: Jose Maria Olazabal, Mark Wiebe, Jeff Maggert.

12: 04 p.m., 7: 52 a.m.: Michael Bradley, Peter Jacobsen, Phil Blackmar; 12: 22 p.m., 8: 10 a.m.: Bruce Zabriski, Joey Sindelar, Brian Watts; 12: 31 p.m., 8: 19 a.m.: Mark Brooks, Jack Nicklaus, Larry Nelson.

12: 40 p.m., 8: 28 a.m.: Rick Fehr, Steve Jones, Scott McCarron; 12: 49 p.m., 8: 37 a.m.: Hale Irwin, Fuzzy Zoeller, Bernhard Langer; 12: 58 p.m., 8: 46 a.m.: Steve Stricker, Peter Lonard, Shigeki Maruyama.

1: 07 p.m., 8: 55 a.m.: Tom Lehman, Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie; 1: 16 p.m., 9: 04 a.m.: Eduardo Romero, David Toms, David Ogrin; 1: 25 p.m., 9: 13 a.m.: Davis Love III, Paul Broadhurst, Loren Roberts.

1: 43 p.m., 9: 31 a.m.: Kenny Perry, Billy Ray Brown, Steve Lowery; 1: 52 p.m., 9: 40 a.m.: Mark Calcavecchia, Taylor Smith, David Frost; 2: 01 p.m., 9: 49 a.m.: Frankie Minoza, Jerry Kelly, Robert Allenby.

2: 10 p.m., 9: 58 a.m.: Robert Gamez, Padraig Harrington, Carlos Franco; 2: 19 p.m., 10: 07 a.m.: Retief Goosen, Thomas Bjorn, Stewart Cink; 2: 28 p.m., 10: 16 a.m.: Shawn Kelly, John Paesani, Jeffrey Lankford.

2: 37 p.m., 10: 25 a.m.: Bob Ford, John Lee, Chris Tucker; 2: 46 p.m., 10: 34 a.m.: Bob Makoski, Jim White, Bob Sowards.

PGA facts

When: Today through Sunday

Where: The West Course of Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., a 6,987-yard, par-70 course

Defending champion: Mark Brooks

Highlighted pairings: 8: 55 a.m.: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Justin Leonard; 1: 07 p.m.: Tom Lehman, Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie

TV: Today and tomorrow, TBS, noon to 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, TBS, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; CBS, 1: 30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Pub Date: 8/14/97

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