MAMARONECK, N.Y.-- They are golfing purists who earlier this year became the last two players on the PGA Tour to begrudgingly switch drivers from persimmon woods to metal. Today, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III will be the last two players to tee off in the final round of the 79th PGA Championship.
Having distanced themselves and seemingly lapped the rest of the field here at Winged Foot in yesterday's third round, Leonard will try to win his second straight major championship while Love will attempt to win the first of his successful, but seemingly unfulfilled 12-year career.
Birdies on the last two holes and four of the last five gave Leonard a course-record of 5-under par 65, a three-round total of 7-under 203 and, however briefly, the lead. But Love came back to birdie the final hole for a 4-under 66 and a share of the lead. They are a more than comfortable seven shots up on the field.
"I think if we get caught up in what we're shooting, somebody can shoot a round just like Justin did today and get back in the tournament," said Love, 33. "I don't want to get into a situation where I want to beat Justin. I'm playing the golf course."
In arriving at the spot last night, Leonard and Love played the treacherous course differently.
Leonard started slowly, getting a birdie on the par-3 third hole and 10 straight almost routine pars. Then he got hot, showing the kind of precision off the tee and touch on the greens that helped him win the British Open last month at Royal Troon. Leonard didn't miss a fairway all day.
"I played differently that I have the last two days," said Leonard, 25. "Today I played pretty solid all around. I was able to play more aggressively. It was just very comfortable today, and it was a nice change of pace from the last two days where I felt like I've been scrambling quite a bit."
Playing with second-round leader Lee Janzen, who faded badly with a 4-over 74 that left him tied with Ryder Cup captain Tom Kite at even-par, Love made birdies on the par-4 fourth hole and the par-5 fifth to take the lead before doing the kind of scrambling Leonard had done earlier in the tournament. Love saved par from seemingly impossible places at least three times.
None was larger than Love's save on the par-4 eighth hole. After his tee shot with a 1-iron hit the trees lining the right side a little more than 100 yards up the fairway and fell into the heavy rough, Love could only manage a safe 7-iron across the fairway. He was still about 170 yards away, but hit another 7-iron to within 10 feet and made the putt for par.
"It was that shot that kept my round going," said Love, who had come into the day trailing Janzen, the 1993 U.S. Open champion, a stroke. "It was like making birdie. After I made that, I felt like I could handle anything."
While Leonard kept making pars until starting his string of birdies and Love kept getting in and out of trouble, their competition self-destructed. Aside from Janzen, who fell steadily out of the hunt over the course of an oppressively hot afternoon that was interrupted by a thunderstorm, others were more dramatic.
Masters champion Tiger Woods was done in by a couple of more double-bogeys, negating an eagle he had made on the par-5 12th and a spectacular birdie he had made on the par-4 16th. Phil Mickelson, 1-under for the day and 3-under for the tournament through 15, triple-bogeyed the 16th hole right before a nearly two-hour delay and a bogey on 18 after it. "I would rather not think about it," Mickelson said after a 3-over 73 left him at 1-over 211.
Mickelson's record in major tournaments will likely stretch to 0-for-18 today, but Love would like to end a dry spell twice as long. This is the 36th major for Love, and the closest he has come was at last year's U.S. Open, when he played his way into contention on the front nine Sunday, only to lose a one-shot lead by bogeying the last two holes. He also placed second at the Masters in 1995.
Asked if Leonard's victory at Royal Troon will give him an advantage today, Love said, "He's running on a high. He's got a lot of confidence, and I'm going to have that trying-to-win-the-first-one pressure. It comes down to who can hit the best shots. He putted so well that last round of the British Open, I think he's going to be playing with a lot of confidence. I'm going to have to play better if I have a chance to beat him."
Said Leonard, "I think my experience at the British this year enabled me to play well today. And so a day like today gives me that much more confidence going into tomorrow and having been in a similar situation with a chance to win, I think that hopefully it will help me tomorrow."
Leonard will be trying to become the first player since Nick Price in 1994 to win back-to-back majors, with Price's victories coming in the British Open and PGA Championship.
A victory for Leonard might show that he is the hottest, if not the best, player in the world.
Having come from five shots behind in both his victories this year -- he also did it at the Kemper Open in June -- Leonard will be looking at today's round with a slightly different perspective. Leonard's game turned around when he changed drivers before the Shell Houston Open in May, a month before Love became the last player on tour to go to metal prior to the U.S. Open.
"I'm just going to get it as close as possible," said Leonard, who made an adjustment in his swing after he hit only seven fairways in an opening-round 68. "Obviously, I have to see what the golf course is like, but par's a good score on this golf course, so I'm not going to try to do anything differently than what I've done for three days. I'm looking forward to tomorrow and what it brings."
Leonard also would have the chance to become the first American since Tom Watson in 1982 to win back-to-back majors. Someone wanted to know what it would be like to win his second straight major.
"It would be nice to go ahead and knock that out," he said.
Justin Leonard 65-203
Davis Love III 66-203
and selected followers
Tom Kite 71-210
Lee Janzen 74-210
Phil Mickelson 73-211
Jeff Maggert 73-211
Fred Couples 73-211
Scott Hoch 68-211
David Duval 71-211
Tiger Woods 71-211
Greg Norman 74-213
Tom Lehman 72-213
John Daly 77-216
Ernie Els 74-220
Pub Date: 8/17/97