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History of The Open

Royal Troon Revisited 1997


Justin Leonard tames Troon greens

Justin Leonard, the Champion Golfer at The Open in 1997

“One moment please... I think it just hit me.”

The apologetic words of an emotional Justin Leonard shortly after he was named Champion Golfer in 1997 will be forever etched into Open folklore.

The Texan became just the third player – after Jim Barnes in 1925 and Tommy Armour in 1931 – to come from five strokes behind on the final day to go on and win the esteemed Claret Jug.

It was to prove the highlight of Leonard’s illustrious career and he would mark the occasion by giving a speech on Royal Troon’s 18th green that is sure to stand the test of time.

The 25-year-old beat Darren Clarke and Jesper Parnevik by three strokes at the end of a thrilling week in which eventual three-time Champion Tiger Woods just about survived his first taste of Troon.

In another landmark Troon moment, Sweden’s Pierre Fulke treated the galleries to a first-round hole-in-one on the par-3 14th.

Tiger Woods putting during his first experience of The Open, at Royal Troon in 1997

Tiger Woods in his first Open as a professional

Tiger feels the force of Troon

Already one of the hottest names in golf, rising star Woods graced Royal Troon for the very first time just three months after his breathtaking win at the Masters.

In his first major appearance since turning professional the previous August, the then-21-year-old had stormed to an incredible 12-shot victory to become the youngest winner of the Green Jacket.

With expectations now sky high, Woods immediately found the tricky Ayrshire links a completely different beast to the Augusta National course he had tamed that April. He found two bunkers on the opening hole and had to work hard to save par.

He was in sand again at the famous ‘Postage Stamp’ – the shortest hole on The Open rota – before a triple-bogey 7 at ‘The Railway’ – the 11th hole – represented the lowest point of a difficult opening round. Woods signed for a one-over 72 at the end of day one.

He appeared to have steadied himself at the beginning of the second round, negotiating the front nine in level par. However, things began to unravel when he carded an unwanted four-over-par 8 at the 10th, leaving him in danger of missing the cut. He was forced to sink a 10ft birdie at the last to extend his stay over the weekend.

A spectacular Saturday 64 – then Troon’s lowest Open round – reminded everyone of Woods’ undoubted class, but overall it was a sobering first experience of the famous Scottish track for one of golf’s eventual all-time greats.

Justin Leonard putts at Royal Troon in 1997

Leonard: Imperious with the putter

Leonard masters the greens

With his family and close friends back home in the United States, Leonard travelled to the west coast of Scotland with just his caddie Bob Riefke for company.

The lack of an entourage meant there was less chance of distractions, allowing him to focus solely on the job at hand. He was homed in from the very first tee.

Only 10 players recorded an under-par tally on a wild and windy opening day; one of which was the cool and collected Leonard.

His showed glimpses of his ability with the flat stick, completing a solid back nine which left him just two strokes behind first-round leaders Clarke and Jim Furyk.

Even better was to follow on the Friday as Leonard took advantage of the warmer conditions to stay in contention with an impressive five-under 66.

But it was in the final round when Leonard’s putter really began to heat up. Trailing by five, the 1992 US Amateur champion quickly picked up shots at the 2nd, 3rd and 4th to move within three of Parnevik. Another birdie at the 7th moved him to 10-under and into second place.

Leonard saved par at the 15th with a nerveless up-and-down after his ball had come to rest between the feet of a course marshal. A 10ft birdie putt at the 16th gave him a share of the lead before a monster putt at the par-3 17th moved him one clear at the perfect time.

He closed out for a 65 – the lowest round of the day – and a Claret Jug-clinching total of 272.

A despondent Jesper Parnevik

A despondent Jesper Parnevik

More Open anguish for Parnevik

Parnevik came agonisingly close to Open glory at Turnberry in 1994 in what was just his second appearance at a major championship.

He held a two-stroke lead over Nick Price coming up the 18th but misjudged his approach, his ball falling into a grassy hollow which became known as ‘Jesper’s Grave’. The subsequent bogey was compounded by Price sinking a long-range eagle on the 17th; a putt which ultimately denied Parnevik his day in the sun.

The Swede found himself in front again three years later after a fabulous third-round 66 moved him onto 11-under-par and presented him with a two-shot lead on Championship Sunday.

A scrambled par at the 1st was a far from ideal way to begin the final round, while he was gripped by indecision at the par-5 6th, finally opting to use his putter from way off the green, leading to a confidence-sapping bogey.

Parnevik wasn’t making life easy for himself – as evidenced by another par save at the Postage Stamp – with the more difficult back nine looming.

Although he drained a birdie at 11, dropped shots at the 10th, 17th and 18th proved costly, paving the way for Leonard’s coronation.

An enduring speech

Leonard had put together one of the greatest final rounds in Open history to haul his way back from five strokes behind to win by two.

It led to a memorable victory speech filled with humour and grace as well as a few tears.

“It’s been a great week,” began Leonard. “It hasn’t hit me yet, so if it hits me during this speech… I apologise.”

It did hit him during the speech, but it was this display of raw emotion that helped endear Leonard to both the supportive crowd gathered close by and the millions watching on TV – including his family and friends back home in Dallas.

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