New, mature Leonard on top at PGA

Originally Published: August 13, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

HAVEN, Wis. -- Justin Leonard is no longer the 25-year-old who won the 1997 British Open, looking as if he would grit his way to the top. Leonard, his Ben Hogan hat pulled low over his brow, was all straight lines and sharp edges then. He knew what he wanted, and as the son of an engineer, plotted his success with meticulous care.

Leonard is 32 now, a husband and a father of an 11-month-old daughter. The edges are rounded off. Golf has landed a few jabs on him. He is no longer wearing arrogance as if it were aftershave. When Leonard discussed being in the lead halfway through the PGA Championship, he almost sounded humble.

Justin Leonard
Nothing short of winning the title will get Leonard on the Ryder Cup team.
"As far as my golf game, I don't know," Leonard said after his 69 put him in a tie with Vijay Singh at 9-under 135. "I probably am a little more comfortable with the way I'm swinging the club."

Coming into Whistling Straits, Leonard had been PGA wallpaper -- always there, but barely noticeable. He had managed the nifty feat of making 14 of 18 cuts with only one top-10 finish, and that was a tie for ninth in Phoenix on Super Bowl weekend, a long time ago.

That's not to diminish the old-fashioned art of cut-making. As Tiger Woods proved Friday, it's not as easy as he has made it look for 129 consecutive tournaments. Woods flirted with going home on a Friday night for the first time in six years. Then he played the final six holes in 3 under. Crisis averted.

"Yeah, I'm very proud of it," Woods said of his streak. "I think maybe people do take it for granted because it's not very easy to do and it's lasted a few years."

Leonard has averted crisis, too. The problem is that this year he has averted success, too. If you're looking for a PGA Tour bar bet to win, spring this one on the foursome Sunday morning. Three players began this year with PGA Tour victories in each of the previous four seasons: Woods (duh), Jim Furyk (sharp guess) and ... ?

Yep, Leonard, who has barely threatened to extend the streak before the last two days. He's currently 74th on the tour money list.

"I was closer to playing well early in the year than I gave myself credit for," Leonard said. "I went two or three months without much confidence."

After he missed three consecutive cuts in June, Leonard decided he needed some help above the shoulders. He was beaten and he was fried, which left him only a cup of cream gravy short of being chicken fried steak. He went to see Dr. Gio Valiante, a psychology professor at Rollins College and one of the newer brain coaches on the PGA Tour.

"He just kind of cleared my head," Leonard said. "He said to me, 'Man, it sounds like you need to get away from the game.'

"I said, 'You're hired.'

"I didn't hit a ball for eight or nine days," Leonard continued. "It was a good thing. I was [at the British Open], excited to play. I haven't been excited much in the last year. When I struggle, I think, 'I need to go practice.' It's good for my game, my physical game. Mentally, I never get much of a break."

He gained a daughter and got perspective as a bonus.

He may have recognized it just in time. Leonard is 30th in Ryder Cup points, which is what happens when you don't finish in the top 10. His name is so far down the list that team captain Hal Sutton hasn't paid that much attention to him.That changed in the last three weeks, when Leonard finished 16th at Royal Troon and 15th at the International.

After Sutton missed the cut by two shots, he held court on the hill behind the 18th green for a half-hour or so Friday. He had three days before he announces his two selections for the U.S. team that will play the Europeans next month at Oakland Hills.

"There are a lot of things up in the air," Sutton said. "What if Justin wins the tournament? Justin Leonard has played pretty well lately ... It's kind of interesting. Justin fires the score he did Thursday. Chris Riley was playing well right behind me. He's 18th (in Ryder Cup points). If he finishes up there in the top 10, that creates different people for me to look at."

If Leonard wins, he could vault into the top 10 in Ryder Cup points and qualify for the team. Sutton will be watching. He was a teammate who bonded with Leonard and celebrated after Leonard poured in the 45-foot bomb on No. 17 at The Country Club that clinched the 1999 Ryder Cup for the Americans.

Leonard hasn't had a success like that in a major championship atmosphere in the intervening five years. He led the 2002 PGA through 54 holes, then shot a 77 on Sunday and became a footnote to Rich Beem.

"I think that I've got a little different perspective now than I did two years ago, having a little girl now," Leonard said. "I think if the same thing happened now as what happened two years ago, that I would probably take it a little bit better and probably would not bug me for quite as long."

The leaderboard is filled with stars. Ernie Els is a stroke back, as is Darren Clarke. Chris DiMarco, who played in the final twosome on Masters Sunday, is only three strokes back.

Joining Singh at the top is a name you recognize who really isn't the same Justin Leonard at all.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Ivan.Maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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