MAMARONECK, N.Y. (AP) _ When Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard step onto the first tee at Winged Foot on Thursday it will be more than the traditional first-round pairing of major championship winners at the PGA.

Those three are jockeying for supremacy in golf this year in what could be the beginning of a decade-long rivalry reminiscent of the Big Three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player that started 35 years ago.

In a twist to a season that appeared early on to be the hands-down Year of the Tiger, the outcome of the 79th PGA Championship could turn 1997 into The Year of Ernie or The Year of Justin.

All three have won majors this year, all three are multiple tournament winners and all three have already banked more than $1 million in prize money. A victory in the PGA by one of them would be a big step toward determining Player of the Year.

And while 1997 might some day be compared to 1962, when Nicklaus won his first major and the rivalry with Palmer and Player got going, this year might also be remembered as the year Greg Norman and Nick Faldo weren't factors in any major.

If either Woods, Els or Leonard wins at Winged Foot, or if another young talent like Jim Furyk or Phil Mickelson takes the title, it would be the first time since the Masters was created in 1934 that all four major championships were won by players in their 20s.

``It's going to be neat to see,'' Woods, the 21-year-old Masters champion said about playing with U.S. Open winner Els, 27, and British Open title-holder Leonard, 25. ``We are going to be playing against each other for about 20 years and that's going to be really neat.''

And then in recognition of the inevitable, felt all too painfully this year by Norman and Faldo, Woods said: ``And then when we get to our 40s, we'll see some young kids kicking our butt.''

If the plot of this PGA is the three under-30 major championship winners, the subplot is the failure this year of a couple of over-40 guys who have been prime contenders in majors for more than a decade.

In fact, it was at the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot that Norman had the first of his eight second-place finishes in major championships and the first loss that would make him the only player to lose all four majors in a playoff.

Norman tried to downplay the changing of the guard, saying he's glad they are taking the attention off him. Still, Norman bristles at the notion Woods will dominate golf in a way he never could.

``Remember, this guy's a human being,'' he said.

Norman won the first of his two major championships in 1986 at the British Open. The next year at the British, Faldo won the first of his six major titles.

Both have contended in the majors since, and it was a rare year that at least one of them didn't make a run at a major title.

But this year Faldo, 40, missed the cut at the Masters, was 48th at the U.S. Open and 51st at the British Open. Norman, 42, missed the cut in the Masters and the U.S. Open and was 36th at the British Open.

Still, Winged Foot is so difficult the patience and precision of veterans like Faldo, Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Tom Lehman and Scott Hoch could put them in the thick of things.

``I would take anything under par right now and fly back for the presentation,'' Montgomerie said.

Defending champion Mark Brooks _ who could become the first person to miss the cut in all four majors the year after winning a major title _ winced as he described the course.

``There's just probably six hard holes, six really hard holes and six impossible holes,'' he said. ``You put that all together there's probably a couple of birdie holes on the golf course.''

Tall trees, 5-inch rough and small, contoured green protected by massive bunkers make Winged Foot a shotmaker's course.

``It's a demanding driving course and then the greens are probably the smallest, especially the usable putting area,'' Faldo said. ``They are the smallest targets of any major by a long way.''

Winged Foot is a fitting final exam for both the young players who have excelled this year and the veterans who have struggled. It is a stern test that could tell a lot about the near future of golf.

``I would love to see that happen,'' Leonard said about the possible emergence of a great rivalry in which he vies with Woods, Els and other good, young players. ``I hope it is the future of golf.''

And while Woods, Els, Leonard, Furyk and Mickelson may be a glimpse of the future this week at the PGA, Norman and Faldo will be hoping to provide a peek at the past.