Daly, Leonard not such opposites after all

Updated: February 28, 2005, 2:29 PM ET
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- If this were football, John Daly would bust through the line of scrimmage and smother Justin Leonard for a 3-yard loss.

If this were basketball, Daly would post up Leonard down low and take him to the basket.

If this were wrestling, well, you get the picture.

John Daly
Daly was his usual animated self against Leonard on Thursday.

Instead, this is golf, where brains often overcome brawn, where a 5-foot-9, 170-pound man such as Leonard can not only compete with the 5-foot-11, 220-pound (if you believe his bio) Daly, but can beat him.

Uh, just not on Thursday.

While Leonard played his usual small-ball, Daly used his prodigious home-run drives to propel him to a 1-up victory in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship.

"[This] was a very tough match," said Daly, who lost in the first round of this event in '02, the only other year he has qualified. "Justin has been playing great. ... I just hung in there."

Neither player led by more than one hole until Daly took advantage of Leonard's missed five-foot putt on the 16th green. Long John looked to have things wrapped up on 17, as his ball was safely on the green in two and Leonard's was pin-high, but in the rough. Instead, the tough Texan kept the match going with a birdie chip-in, prompting this gem from Daly:

"I was just glad I was 1 up," he later said.

The two men traded pars on the final hole, meaning a large win for a man whose stature -- both literally and figuratively -- has become larger than life.

But as great as their physical differences are, the careers of Daly and Leonard are actually pretty similar. Each won a British Open in the mid-1990s and received all of the spoils that accompany such an accomplishment: money (Daly is 83rd on the all-time money list; Leonard is ninth), fame (they are both among the world's most popular players) and, of course, expectations.

As each man knows, living up to expectations isn't all it's cracked up to be.

It took Daly nine years to claim his most recent win on tour -- last year's Buick Invitational.

"I think attitude and a little bit of maturity may be [the biggest changes]," Daly said. "I'm just more relaxed on the golf course than I have ever been."

Leonard was plagued by a lackluster '04 season, finishing 42nd on the money list -- his worst ranking since 1994, when he played much of the season as an amateur -- before taking this year's Bob Hope Classic.

Ironic then -- or perhaps just poetic -- that the two men whose careers were salvaged in California met under the West Coast sun to wage battle at La Costa.

After all, qualifying for the Match Play is considered a reward for solid play. And each knows how lucky they are to be here.

You could see it on the first hole. Leonard and Daly greeted each other with handshakes and a little chit-chat before the round began.

They kept up casual conversation throughout the round. Only one problem: Daly was consistently walking 40-50 yards past his opponent on every hole, easily outdriving him time and again.

Such is life for Long John Daly. He's not always the best, but at least he's the biggest. And against Justin Leonard, he was both.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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