Leonard cuts through wind, even on 16
By David Kraft
CHASKA, Minn. -- Justin Leonard came to Hazeltine National on Monday, took one look at the 7,360 yards on the scorecard, and decided he had no chance to win the PGA Championship.
Tiger on his mind?
Justin Leonard isn't afraid to admit it: Tiger Woods will be very much on his mind in Sunday's final round.
"Obviously, I'm going to look and see how Tiger is doing," Leonard said.
Leonard won't be paired with Woods, who will be in the group in front with Fred Funk. That won't be enough distance to keep Leonard from getting updates.
"Does he intimidate me?" he asked. "Sure, at times he does. He hasn't done it this week, and if I go out and do my job tomorrow, then he won't tomorrow, either.
Saturday night, thanks in part to a remarkable 7-iron to 18 inches that set up one of only six birdies all day on the 16th hole, he has a three-shot lead heading into the final round.
The old Justin Leonard was talking Monday. The new Justin Leonard walked off the 18th green Saturday night with a 3-under par 69, the only score of the day under 70 in windy conditions at Hazeltine.
Of course, it's always easier to be optimistic when you're taking a three-shot lead into the final 18 holes of a major championship.
"I've done it once, and I've lost a couple of close ones," said Leonard, whose only major championship victory came at the 1997 British Open. "I've seen both sides of the coin, and I know I need to go out and shoot a good round."
He shot one Saturday in windy, blustery conditions not unlike what Leonard is used to, having grown up in Texas, where he was an NCAA champ for the Longhorns. He made just one bogey -- on the par-4 fifth hole -- and shot 33 on the back nine, including the birdie at 16.
The birdie came as Leonard was pulling away from the field during a topsy-turvy back nine. He birdied the 10th hole to catch Rich Beem, who was in his threesome. Beem made a birdie at 11, but dropped back into a tie with a bogey at 14.
Leonard birdied the par-5 15th for the third straight day -- two woods to the fringe, a 40-foot pitch and a 5-foot putt -- then took aim at the 16th, which had given him trouble. His drive split the fairway and his 7-iron was what he called his best shot of the day.
He parred the final two holes.
"I enjoy playing in difficult conditions," said Leonard, who won his British Open at Royal Troon, not known for Palm Springs-like weather, even in July. "I think this golf course played extremely difficult today. The scores, obviously, reflect that."
Leonard isn't the same player who won the British Open at the age of 24. He has totally rebuilt his golf game, and if you listen to him, his life.
He needed to get stronger, so he started working out and eating better. He's been working with Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods' swing coach, for a little over a year. Together, they have shortened his swing, eliminated what Leonard calls "excess movement" and added some distance (he's 16th this week in driving distance, averaging 293 yards off the tee).
"I had a long swing that became very difficult day-to-day for it to feel the same," Leonard said. "I think if you're going to put one word on it, it would just be 'simplify.'"
During the reconstruction process, Leonard still contended. He hasn't been lower than 25th on the money list since 1998, and has won at least one tournament in every year but one since 1996.
And he hit one of golf's most famous putts ever at the 1999 Ryder Cup, prompting an on-green celebration that's still fueling the event three years later.
But Leonard said he wasn't comfortable with his new game until last year, when he was 10th at the PGA and then won his second Texas Open. "Being able to string a bunch of pretty solid rounds together like that last year is kind of when I gave myself the stamp of approval," Leonard said.
This year, he decided to take care of his life outside the golf course. He got married in February.
"I didn't do that to improve my golf game, but it has," Leonard said.
The results are certainly blissful. Leonard has won $1.9 million this year on the PGA Tour, with a win at the WorldCom Classic and four other top-10 finishes. He's been in the top 20 at all three majors (including a tie for 12th at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black).
The PGA, however, is a different animal. If the wind dies down, and it's expected to, low scores are possible. The new Leonard insists he isn't worried about anyone else.
"I don't plan on changing my strategy with the way I play the golf course," Leonard said. "I felt like I've played it fairly conservative all week, and when I've had an opportunity to play aggressively, I've done that.
"I think that's the reason I'm at 9-under," he said. "And I see no reason to change that right now."
Lurking five shots back is Tiger Woods. Leonard won both the British Open and the Players Championship by overcoming similar deficits.
"It's safe, but it isn't," Leonard said of his lead. "I don't think I can go out and just scoot it around. I need to go out and play some good golf."
For 54 holes, he has. And he's developed a new fondness for Hazeltine National in the process.