SAN FRANCISCO -- They were supposed to have taken over the sport after winning each of the first three major championships last year. Twentysomethings named Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard were supposed to have made the thirtysomethings and fortysomethings and one notable fiftysomething golfer insignificant.
And then something happened.
The older guys rebelled.
First Davis Love, a 34-year-old purist who had held onto his persimmon driver until last year, won his first major title at the PGA Championship at Winged Foot last August. Then Mark O'Meara, a 41-year-old with more than $8 million in career earnings, won his first major at this year's Masters.
There was also 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus climbing into the hunt at Augusta National in the final round before O'Meara claimed victory on the final hole. And there were 48-year-old Tom Watson and 38-year-old Fred Couples winning on successive weeks last month.
"Things kind of go in cycles," Tom Lehman, 39, said yesterday. "And great players are great players, no matter how old you are. I think it is just kind of one of those things that happened last year. Suddenly everyone says the old guys are back. Well, the old guys never went anywhere. It is just that the younger guys played a little better last year."
The story line, if not the battle line, has been drawn for the 98th U.S. Open, which begins today at the Olympic Club. It may not be the same story line of the three Opens that previously have been played at this venerable course.
It is one that has produced surprise winners such as Jack Fleck's beating Ben Hogan in a 1955 playoff and Scott Simpson's holding off Tom Watson in 1987, and a surprised winner in Billy Casper, who in 1966 took advantage of Arnold Palmer's infamous seven-shot collapse to win in a playoff.
This one features youth versus experience, power versus finesse. And, considering the physical state of Els, the tournament's two-time and defending champion, as well as Woods, the advantage may go to players such as former champion Watson and two who have come close a number of times, Lehman and Colin Montgomerie of Scotland.
"I know I will be hitting first all the time on my second shots," said Watson, who will be playing in the opening day's featured threesome along with Woods and 25-year-old Englishman Lee Westwood, considered the best player on the European Tour. "I certainly hope I hit first on every tee."
Watson is now thought to be a legitimate threat. He has recently regained his touch around the greens and some of the swagger from his days as the world's No. 1 player.
A victory at the Colonial Invitation three weeks ago was his first in two years and backed up some impressive performances earlier this year, including a tie for second in Phoenix and a second at the Hawaiian Open. Watson is also tied for first after two rounds of the rain-suspended AT&T; Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
"I am enjoying the twilight of my career," said Watson, whose turnaround has come during a tumultuous period in his personal life that includes an impending divorce and his decision last fall to quit drinking. "I just hope I can continue to play the way I am playing and make the decision very difficult about the Senior Tour, whether I play or not."
Players such as Els and Woods are not looking past today's round, and whether the back injuries that have forced them to pull out of recent tournaments will recur here, given the thick rough from which they'll undoubtedly be forced to hit some of their shots.
Els didn't get to Olympic until Tuesday after withdrawing from the Buick Classic last week and didn't hit balls until yesterday. Woods seems to have recovered from the trouble that forced him to withdraw from the Kemper Open two weeks ago.
"When you feel that pain, you don't want to aggravate it more," said Els, 28, who beat Montgomerie by a shot and Lehman by two in last year's Open at Congressional. "I'm not really where I want to be, but at least I can go out there and make a good pass at it."
It has been said by many, including Els, that Woods won't fare well here because his game isn't suited to a course that features tight, sloped fairways bordered by some 40,000 trees. It is similar to the comment Montgomerie made about Woods before last year's Ryder Cup at Valderrama. That comment proved correct.
But Woods is a more patient player than he was last year at Congressional, where he came in hyped about going for golf's first professional Grand Slam after winning the Masters by 12 shots. He came out humbled after tying for 19th.
"I like the challenge, I like when people say that," said Woods, 22, who won last month's BellSouth Classic but is coming off a disappointing performance at the Memorial. "It gets you revved up, but once you step on the first tee, you've got to get your focus on and maintain your concentration all the way through."
By the time the Open ends Sunday -- or Monday, in the event of a sudden-death playoff -- the players who avoid the rough will likely give themselves a chance to win regardless of what year shows on their birth certificates.
"Golf isn't a game where age makes a difference," said Justin Leonard, 26, the reigning British Open champion who is considered one of the favorites here. "Maybe if you're 15 years old and you're playing someone much older. But once you're a professional, age is not a big a factor as some think."
98th U.S. Open
When: Today-Sunday (playoff Monday if needed)
Where: The Olympic Club, San Francisco
TV: Today-tomorrow: 3-5 p.m. on NBC, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10: 30 p.m. on ESPN; Saturday-Sunday: 2-8 p.m. on NBC; Monday (if necessary): noon-2 p.m. on ESPN, 2 p.m.-conclusion on NBC
Pub Date: 6/18/98