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Els, Leonard pack fairways

July 31, 1997

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (AP) _ Huge galleries followed Justin Leonard and Ernie Els during practice rounds at Castle Pines Golf Club. Els wasn’t deceived by the adulation.

``They probably came to watch us because Tiger Woods isn’t here,″ Els said Wednesday on the eve of the Sprint International.

``I’ve never had this many people following me,″ Leonard said. ``I’ve seen it happen to other players and always thought, `Look at that poor guy.‴

Els, for one, is convinced that Tigermania is great for the game.

``It’s nice when he’s around,″ Els said. ``We get more people out to watch, and I don’t have to sign as many autographs. He’s really a good guy and is good for the Tour.″

Els isn’t even bothered by the sometimes boisterous, new-to-the-game fans that Woods tends to attract.

``Crowds were loud for John Daly, too, after he won the PGA in 1991,″ Els said. ``Tiger is attracting people to the course who wouldn’t normally watch a golf tournament. These people might not know when to stand still or when to be quiet, but they’ll learn.″

Woods, Els and Leonard are among the new breed of golfers in their 20s who have both the skills and the poise to win majors. Woods, 21, captured the Masters. Els, 27, took the U.S. Open. Leonard, 25, rallied to win the British Open.

Many of the game’s best players, including Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Paul Stankowski and Stuart Appleby, also are in their 20s.

``Guys in their 20s are really doing well now,″ Els said. ``Obviously, Tiger is only 21 and is No. 1 in the world. Justin has always been a solid player, and he won the British Open in fine style. The future of this game should be in fine shape.

``The youngsters are coming through, but I don’t really know why. We’re all just playing. Maybe the experience we picked up the last couple of years is starting to come our way. Maybe it’s our cycle coming through now. Who knows?″

Els is particularly eager to add another victory this week in a tournament he loves.

``This is one of my favorite places in the world to play,″ he said. ``I’ve been second and fourth in this tournament. I have no problems playing in this altitude (6,200 feet) because I grew up playing in this stuff (in Johannesburg, South Africa).

``It’s a special tournament for me because the Vickers brothers gave me a break in 1991. I didn’t have my card. I was on the Hogan Tour and not playing very well. This is one of the first tournaments I played in in America.″

Els also likes the International because of its unique format. Its modified Stableford scoring system awards a golfer with 8 points for double eagle, 5 for eagle, 2 for birdie, zero for par, minus-1 for bogey and minus-3 for double bogey or worse.

``You have to play safe now and then, but this format gives you a chance to be aggressive,″ he said.

Scores are cumulative and there are cuts after the second and third rounds, to exactly 72 and 24 players, respectively, with playoffs to be held if needed.

The 7,559-yard Castle Pines layout is playing longer than in recent years because of several days of drenching rains.

``Today I hit a really good drive on No. 5 and a 6-iron approach (during the pro-am),″ Els said. ``We’re usually hitting wedges into that green.″

Woods, the Tour’s leading money winner who has won four times this season, and Steve Elkington, No. 2 on the money list, are not playing here. But 13 of the top 19 players in money earnings are entered.

Clarence Rose defeated Brad Faxon in a playoff last year, eagling the 17th hole for the second time that day. Both players return, along with 1993 International winner Mickelson, 1990 champion Davis Love III and 1989 titlist Greg Norman.

The tournament carries a purse of $1.4 million, with $306,000 going to the winner.

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