- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

CHASKA, Minn. Golf's grim-faced Texan has his spurs dug in at Hazeltine.
Stoic grinder Justin Leonard posted a Saturday-best 69 in severe winds yesterday to reach 9-under 207 at the 84th PGA Championship. Leonard's near-flawless effort left him three shots ahead of 1999 Kemper Open champion Rich Beem and four strokes clear of Takoma Park, Md., native Fred Funk entering today's finale on the Minnesota prairie.
"I felt like my play today was as good, maybe better, than my play at Troon in 1997 or at the Players in '98," said the former British Open champion, referring to the two most impressive victories on his resume. "It was just a very good ball-striking round, and I made all the putts that I was supposed to make."
The 30-year-old was the only player in the 72-man field to break 70 on the 7,360-yard, par-72 layout, as gusts of up to 40 mph pushed up the day's average score to nearly 76 and allowed just four sub-par performances. The only thing that kept Hazeltine playable was the overnight deluge, which softened the course and helped to dull the difficulty of playing in high winds.
Of course, few players in the world are as adept as Leonard at doing battle in the breeze. His unorthodox swing, with its flat finish, produces a low, boring ball flight that mocks the wind. And yesterday his smoking putter, which has yielded 21 one-putts without a three-putt all week, provided the perfect complement. Leonard surged past early-round leader Beem (6 under) with three point-blank back-nine birdies (Nos.10, 15 and 16) and coasted home with what would seem to be a very safe lead.
Only five players are within seven strokes of Leonard. And only one, Tiger Woods at 4 under, looms as a daunting threat to his second major uprising.
"If I go out and I play well, then I feel like the lead is safe," said Leonard, who would certainly be on the short list in golf's least-likely-to-fold category.
Quite frankly, few would give either Beem or Funk good odds of catching Leonard. For one thing, neither has ever seriously contended in a major, much less won one of golf's coveted four events.
"If he keeps hitting the ball like he did today and has his touch around the greens, especially with his putter, he's going to be pretty unbeatable," said Beem, who might need every ounce of Pepto Bismol on the planet to survive his first final pairing in the last round of a major. "I'm looking forward to watching it first-hand."
As for Funk, who once again was cheered around Hazeltine like a favorite son, he'll have to play alongside Woods. That marriage has reduced far more decorated players to mush. And despite Funk's gutsy play during his third-round 73, a gambling man would have to bet the only silver he'll be lifting in the near future will be accompanied by a linen napkin.
"No matter what happens, I've had a ball out there this week," said the 46-year-old. "To win would be incredible. I wouldn't even have the words to describe it."
Perhaps only Woods needs to have a comeback speech prepared. Though the 26-year-old Woods has never come from behind in the final round in any of his eight major wins, it seems bound to happen eventually. When one writer asked Woods if five strokes was too big a margin to make up, Woods responded sarcastically, "Oh, yeah, five strokes is way too much. Come on."
That said, Woods understands that he will be attempting to catch one of the game's most unflappable personalities.
"Justin is a great player," said Woods after a third-round 72. "He's a fighter. He'll grind it out and get it up-and-down. He's a beautiful putter, as we all know, and I think that's one of the reasons why he's up on top of that board."
Still, with no wind in the forecast and the greens still soft, conditions should be perfect for scoring today. Funk intimated that a handful of 65s wouldn't surprise him. And Leonard knows better than most about final-round comebacks. He was behind by five strokes or more entering the final rounds for his victory at the British Open and his triumph at the Players Championship.
"I came back from five shots to win a major championship, so there's no doubt it can be done," said Leonard of Woods. "And you know Tiger is going to go out and shoot at pins. I feel like I've got to go out and play a great round of golf. It takes that to win a major championship. I don't think I can go out there and just scoot it around and win."

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