LINKS LETTER, 2008 ANNUAL EDITION

REWARD IN SIGHT

By Jeff Hopper

For golf fans, the image is indelible.

Justin Leonard, arms raised in triumph, mouth agape in a joyous whoop, is about to be swallowed up in a rush of American teammates. He had just slam-dunked a 45-putt birdie putt, and it looked like the comeback was complete. The United States would regain the Ryder Cup.

The year was 1999, and Leonard’s crippling blow to the European contingent—whose disfavor for the whole affair left a lasting mark of its own—was the third in a line of big moments for the then 27-year-old.

Two years before, he had raided the Europeans for the first time, winning the British Open Championship at Royal Troon. He was just 25 at the time and he appeared to be, as they say now, “all upside.” Golf isn’t that way, as Leonard and hundreds of others before him can tell you, but the future was surely bright.

Less than a year later, with the best international field in the world assembled at the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Leonard won another gigantic event; he was THE PLAYERS champion.

Then came that September weekend in Brookline. Before the world knew the extent of its warring evil, The Country Club had played one of the last great hands of innocence, hosting the 1913 U.S. Open Championship, the only Open won by an amateur, the caddie-turned-hero, Francis Ouimet. And who were Ouimet’s Monday playoff victims? Not Americans, we can tell you that. Rather, Ouimet outdid two of Europe’s finest, Ted Ray and the legendary Harry Vardon.

Now here was Leonard, on the brink of another inhospitable send-off, lining up his putt at the seventeenth in an impossible circumstance.

The United States had started the Sunday singles competition trailing 10-6. No team in the biennial affair had ever come back from more than two points down. Only five times had a team come from behind at all.

But the thrust came early, with lopsided wins by Davis Love III, Tom Lehman, Phil Mickelson, and Hal Sutton. The Americans had tied it. Then David Duval won, and Tiger Woods. The 14½ points the U.S. would need looked just around the corner, except that Mark O’Meara lost hold of his match on the final hole and Leonard and Payne Stewart were trailing. Even with victories by Steve Pate and Jim Furyk, the Americans would need another half point.

Stewart, just weeks before his death, won two holes to square his match. Meanwhile, Leonard headed to the twelfth tee down four to Jose Maria Olazabal.

And then the tournament really got going. Leonard won four straight holes. The match was square and remained that way through sixteen. At seventeen, Leonard’s approach came up short, those 45 feet below the hole. Olazabal’s putt was closer, about 25 feet from birdie. If somehow Leonard could get his putt to fall and Olazabal had to settle for par, the necessary half point would be assured, for Leonard would go to the last 1-up.

With seven of his teammates and captain Ben Crenshaw looking on, Leonard sent his putt snaking up the green, with more speed than necessary. And everyone could see that the ball was tracking. It had a chance to go in.

When it hit the back of the cup and fell to the bottom, the putt ignited a chain reaction. Leonard, as could be expected of any player in his situation, threw his arms in the air, moving quickly across the green, and hollered mightily. Of course, his shout was met by the louder clamor of the raucous American crowd. His teammates, forgetting for the moment that Olazabal had yet to putt, charged onto the green to share the celebration.

It was a hootenanny that tested most every point of golf decorum, but it was also one of the most exciting moments in golf history. Sometimes, forgiveness is the better part of valor. The green cleared, Olazabal regrouped. Then the Spaniard missed his putt and the deal was sealed.

And at the center of it all was this one young star, Justin Leonard, who had won five of six holes in the greatest pressure cooker a golfer can imagine.

Two years later, the Cup would be postponed, the victim of the new century’s first great horror, 9/11. By the time the teams reassembled in 2002 at The Belfry, the mood was subdued, and the European victory was seen as dominant golf, not embittered revenge.

But Leonard was not there. In two years he had not done enough, or won enough, to retain his spot. His game, it turned out, was not “all upside.”

After Brookline, Leonard didn’t lose focus. He still couples the ’97 British Open and the ’99 Ryder Cup as the two highest points of his career. But he never meant for things to go downhill from there.

“I focused more on just trying to find ways to improve, trying to get better and get more consistent in my performance,” he recalls now, on an afternoon before an off-season event this past December. “I said, ‘OK, here is my game now. How am I going to improve and get better?’”

And it wasn’t that he didn’t keep rolling. On familiar ground in San Antonio, Leonard, a native Texan, won the Texas Open back-to-back in 2000 and 2001. In the spring of 2002, Leonard won again, the WorldCom Classic at Hilton Head Island, securing his fifth significant victory at a windy site. It was his seventh win in six years. But by then the Ryder Cup teams had been cemented, carryovers from the stalled 2001 squads. Leonard’s 2002 season, when he finished back in the top 10 in earnings, went largely unnoticed.

Sometimes a player has to be satisfied with process.

Leonard kept working on his game, occasionally with major changes, but usually with minor adjustments.

“I made some pretty dramatic changes about six years ago and then some more subtle changes last spring when I went back to work with Randy Smith, my old teacher,” Leonard says. “It’s a constant process. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever mastered anything I’ve ever worked on.”

The work produced wins. Leonard won once in 2003, twice in 2005. But coming into the fall of 2007, he had been winless for 28 months. Those little changes made with Smith, however, were about to pay off.

“I was trying to incorporate those things and trying to make them become more natural, which is always a big challenge,” says Leonard.

With two weeks off following his departure after the second week of the FedEx Cup playoffs, Leonard settled in to those changes. He finished tied for 13th at the Turning Stone Resort Championship, then returned to one of his favorite places on Tour, the La Cantera Resort in San Antonio.

“Even outside of the victories, in ’94, my first year on Tour, I got into 13 events and played well that week and was able to secure my card,” Leonard explains. “The next year I played it, the last event before the Tour Championship. I finished second and qualified for the Tour Championship. So I’ve been able to reach a lot of milestones at the Texas Open.”

The 2007 Texas Open would produce another such milestone. Opening and closing with 65s, Leonard’s tournament included a 64 on Saturday. His 261 total put him in a playoff with Jesper Parnevik, another past Ryder Cup star who was hoping for a resurgence of his own. Leonard won with a birdie on the third extra hole, becoming the only player other than Arnold Palmer to win the tournament three times. It was Leonard’s eleventh win overall since joining the Tour full-time in mid-1994.

This time, the process produced a most favorable result. In the ensuing weeks, Leonard would secure a $2-million season with sixth-place ties at the Fry’s Electronics Open and the Children’s Miracle Network Classic. And now Leonard possesses the understanding that results can be fleeting.

“You can’t always justify the work with results. When the results come, you’d better enjoy them when they’re there, because they’re not going to be there forever. To be able to look at the hard work that I put in and be able to justify it with the results that I had is very, very gratifying,” he says.

Process.

In the trophy-gathering, check-collecting environment of professional sports, it is easy to forget the mountain of preparation athletes climb to reach the pinnacle that is a major championship or career-best season.

On the PGA Tour the difference is easily seen in the disparity between the sizes of the grandstands surrounding the eighteenth green and those at the back of the range. Corporate tents and television towers don’t cast their shadows on the practice tee.

But nearly every professional who has seen a big payday has paid the price and learned the lesson: results are the children of hard work. And many of them, including Justin Leonard, started very young.

Leonard’s parents both played, and he began his golf with them. He played soccer too, for five or six years, but when golf brought success at 13 and 14, Leonard turned his attention to the one game.

Leonard can trace at least seven of his 11 wins on Tour to those days growing up in Texas, where the wind blows plenty and forces players to accommodate this capricious element.

“It’s the way I play golf,” he says, “controlling my distance, keeping the ball down when I need to. That’s how I grew up playing the game, having to bounce the ball on the green and having to maneuver shots.”

Hence, his wins in Texas and on the Eastern seaboard. Hence, his ’97 Open Championship, when the wind blew fiercely, and nearly a second Open two seasons later, when Paul Lawrie bested Leonard and Jean Van de Velde in a four-hole playoff.

Of course, there was a lot of in-between. Leonard went to the University of Texas, where he roomed with Harrison Frazar, who would join him on the PGA Tour, as would teammate Omar Uresti. “All the friends I made through school,” Leonard says, “they’re still my closest friends.”

Leonard also earned his business degree at UT, a milestone of another kind, graduating in four years. But once he left UT behind, golf was his sole aim. With a third-place finish at the Annheuser-Busch Classic in 1994, he earned enough money to gain his Tour card without ever having to go through the rigorous Tour Qualifying Tournament. His attention to golf paid the dividends he had hoped for.

But Leonard sees now that his singular focus was too narrow. “Early in my career, as most young people are, I was very wrapped up in myself and my game,” he explains.

In 2000, Leonard met Amanda, the woman he would date for a year, leading to six months of engagement and then marriage. It was Amanda who worked to broaden Leonard’s perspective.

“When we were dating, we would go to church and talk about things a little bit,” he recalls, “but it really wasn’t until a month or so after we were married that we were at a Bible study—actually, my first Tour Bible study at Hilton Head in 2002. Everything started to click.”

The Tour’s studies are led by Larry Moody and Dave Krueger, men who serve with Search Ministries. Moody has been the Tour’s chaplain since the mid-1980s, and hundreds of players have heard the man’s words. Though patient and well-reasoned, Moody is unafraid to challenge a player with the essentials.

“He asked if I had accepted Christ into my life and turned my life over to Him, and I said no I hadn’t, but I would like to,” Leonard says of their early conversations. “That was kind of the beginning of my journey. And thanks to help from people like Larry and my wife Amanda and my Christian brothers out here on Tour, I’m trying the best I can to walk the walk.”

That sounds simple now, nearly six years later, but Leonard had to realize first that he was not in control. He says: “I don’t know if it’s the game or just my own personality, but turning over control is not something that has come easy to me. I’ve learned more and more over the last five years that I can only do so much.”

And this too is a process. But Leonard is pleased with the results.

“It changes my golf in that I know that when I’m going through a valley, like I did in 2006 and early 2007, there is a reason I’m there. It’s shaping my character and making me stronger. Although it’s hard to do, I thank God for those times.

“I always remind myself that I am right where I am supposed to be, even though I may not always like the place where I am. I don’t mean a specific location, I just mean at a place in my life—that I’m always right where I’m supposed to be.”

That perspective is aided by one of Scripture’s most powerful promises, found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” It is a favorite passage for Leonard, one he goes back to “quite often.” But Leonard has been working on this part of the process too, reading the Bible more widely and more regularly, at the encouragement of Tour cohort Ben Crane.

“Getting in the Word everyday is difficult, but it’s that time that I need to focus on God and just for me personally to discover all of the reasons we’re here and become closer to Him,” Leonard says.

In the bigger scheme of things, then—the scheme that includes Amanda and the couple’s three young children—Leonard has found something indelible of his own. It’s not just a photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated or a highlight reel on the Tour’s web site. It’s more than lifting a trophy or making a team.

He’s still driven to win, as last fall in San Antonio proved again. But he’s driven more than that to continue the process of growth that rebuilds a person’s entire character. Turning control over to God, Leonard says, “changes everything.” It’s a process that will produce the rewards he most wants to see, the rewards that come from living for Christ.

COPYRIGHT 2008 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Justin Leonard

    12 PGA Tour Wins (one major): 1996 Buick Open, 1997 Kemper Open, 1997 British Open Championship, 1998 Players Championship, 2000 Westin Texas Open, 2001 Texas Open, 2002 WorldCom Classic, 2003 Honda Open, 2005 Bob Hope Desert Classic, 2005 Fed-Ex St. Jude Classic, 2007 Valero Texas Open, 2008 Stanford St. Jude Classic