A Great Short Game
The defending British Open champion is 5 feet 9, taller than his driver, so unflappable he probably wouldn’t notice if you baked scones on his cap, weighs all of 160 pounds, heavier than the Claret Jug, smiles about as often as you can find an empty line at a Royal Birkdale concession stand, so efficient he makes lists of lists and so good on the greens that he was the best putter in all of Troon, Scotland, for one day last July.
That would be Justin Leonard, the 26-year-old Texan and heir to the Lone Star State’s mantle as its greatest golfer, a title previously held by Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, neither one ever quite good enough to win the British Open as the kid did.
Now, you might say that Leonard simply happened to get hot at the right time, but that’s sort of like explaining that Troon runner-up Jesper Parnevik failed because his Popsicle purple slacks gave him nausea and thus caused him to hit drives so far off line that Sherlock Holmes should have been called in.
There’s a more reasonable explanation for Leonard’s three-shot victory over Parnevik and Darren Clarke. It was Justin time.
Signs of Leonard’s emergence into golf’s big time were there, all along, if anybody had cared to pay attention. He won the Buick Open in 1996, his second full year on the PGA Tour. He won the Kemper Open in 1997, and even though Mark Wiebe basically handed it to him by missing putts shorter than the attention span of a golf ball, it still counted.
That brought us to Royal Troon, famous for victories by Arnold Palmer in the 1962 British Open and Tom Watson in 1982 and for being the home course of Colin Montgomerie, whose father was the groundskeeper. It didn’t help Montgomerie much, but Leonard, who hadn’t even seen the place before, did quite well indeed.
Five shots behind Parnevik after three rounds, three shots behind Clarke and tied with Fred Couples, Leonard closed with a six-under 65 and won going away. Leonard’s 12-under total of 272 tied for the seventh-lowest score in British Open history--Greg Norman’s 267 in 1993 at Royal St. George’s is the best.
Leonard won the British Open on Troon’s treacherous back nine, and there is one terrific putt that stands out. That would be the 30-foot, downhill roller, slight right to left break, a birdie putt on No. 17 that fell right into the middle of the hole and gave him the edge he needed.
Mark Brooks, another fellow Texan, said Leonard was a cut above and simply proved it.
“He just made some really critical putts,” Brooks said. “Obviously, you have to do that to win. It’s pretty rare when you win with two-putts coming in. The killers were at 16 and 17. He putted it better than anyone else under pressure.”
True enough. If you’re like Brooks and counting pressure putts, look at Leonard’s on the back nine that last round at Troon: par-saving 10-footer at No. 11...... 15-footer for par on No. 15..... two-footer for birdie on No. 16, then his slow-rolling birdie bomb at No. 17.
Gene Sarazen, the 1932 British Open champion, said Leonard’s putts on the back nine were as good as he has seen, considering the circumstance.
“This golf today, if you can’t putt, you might as well stay at home,” Sarazen said. “This young man Leonard doesn’t need to stay at home much, if you know what I mean.”
Actually, Leonard has been a man on the go in the golf business for a long time. After all, the University of Texas graduate earned his degree in business. The 1992 U.S. Amateur champion and an All-American at Texas, Leonard is the only golfer in the former Southwest Conference’s history to win the conference championship four consecutive years.
In less than four full years on the PGA Tour, Leonard already has six top 10s in majors--two at the Masters, three in the PGA and his victory at the British Open.
Now that his time to defend that major title has come, beginning today at Royal Birkdale, Leonard said his pro golf experience is going to help him out.
“I look at it as sort of a progression,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of learning experiences, not just from winning golf tournaments, but from losing them too.
“When I came out here, I didn’t have expectations on where I would be in four years, five years, or whatever. I came out wanting to see my game improve. And I’ve done that.”
Leonard has been spending a lot of time in the fitness trailer, where he works out with a trainer to gain flexibility and strength and hopefully a few extra yards off the tee--he ranked No. 172 in the driving statistics last year.
Leonard said he’s hitting the ball farther, but the biggest difference he has noticed is that he can get the ball out of the rough a lot easier.
As for getting it into the hole, maybe he will have four more days like he did at Troon. His preparation was interesting enough. Leonard got to Troon two weeks before the tournament, without any family or friends, accompanied only by Bob Riefke, his caddie. They played a full 80 holes to get ready for the tournament and that turned out to be a very good idea.
In the end, Leonard wound up as the youngest British Open champion since Seve Ballesteros in 1979 and with the biggest fourth-round comeback since Jim Barnes in 1925. Of the 16 players who began the final round at Troon under par, Leonard was the only one to shoot in the 60s.
Not bad for a guy in his 20s. Can he do it again?
“I’m playing OK,” he said.
Riefke knows when Leonard is playing better than that, which is what happened on that huge putt on No. 17 at Troon.
“I don’t know if anybody else can see it, but he gets this look in his eye,” Riefke said. “His eyes get real big and I guess the hole starts looking real big too.”
For the defending champion, this would be a good time for the hole to start looking bigger.