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Leonard Has a Good Reason for New Hope

Times Staff Writer

He’s got a new cap, new clothes and new equipment, and now that he has won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, it’s nothing less than a brand new start for Justin Leonard.

At 33, Leonard isn’t exactly a kid anymore, even if his sheepish grin and baby-faced looks say otherwise, but when you are coming off the worst year of your career and you change pretty much everything about the way you do business, there could be some questions hanging in the air.

Questions such as ... just what direction is Leonard’s career heading?

After coming from behind in the wind Sunday and charging to what looked to be an almost routine three-shot victory, Leonard may have signaled a new beginning to a career most notable for one major title eight years ago, near-misses in two others and 6-year-old memories of a clutch Ryder Cup putt.

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Leonard’s workmanlike closing round of 67 on the Palmer Course at PGA West in La Quinta earned him $846,000 and his ninth PGA Tour victory, but his first in nearly two years.

Leonard’s rounds of 66-67-68-64-67 added up to a 28-under-par total of 332, three shots better than Tim Clark and Joe Ogilvie.

Clark’s three-under 69 included a birdie at the 18th, but there was no magic for Ogilvie, who either led or was tied for the lead after each of the first four rounds. Instead of finding his first tour victory, Ogilvie struggled to a 73 but didn’t sound too depressed.

“I got a pretty good front-row seat for a great round of golf,” he said.

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If there are defeated players, there must also be a winner, and for a first time in 22 months, it was Leonard.

“I think this certainly takes some pressure off,” he said. “It’ll also inspire me to work a little harder knowing that, you know, one [victory] is not enough. I just know that I’ve been sitting on eight tournament [victories] for almost two years and it’s nice to get a ninth.

“I was never concerned that I would never win again. I certainly didn’t know it would be this early in the year.”

A year ago, Leonard fell to 42nd on the tour money list, the lowest position of his 11-year career, and he failed to win a tournament for the first time since 1999. It could have been a lot different. Leonard had a chance to win the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, needing only a 12-foot putt for par on the 72nd hole but missed it and lost to Vijay Singh in a playoff.

It was a result similar to the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, where Leonard lost to Paul Lawrie in a playoff.

Leonard had only three top 10s last year, the fewest in any of his full seasons since turning pro in June 1994. In his time off, Leonard didn’t rest. He switched his clubs, from Hogan to Nike, and started using a Nike ball instead of Titleist.

Leonard also tinkered with his swing and set out with an improved attitude, which he kept intact even after missing the cut last week at Torrey Pines in his first event of the year.

But Leonard said he felt he was onto something good and, on Sunday, it wasn’t long in coming.

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Everything changed at the 10th hole, a turning point so sharp it shouldn’t have been handled without a seat belt. Leonard already had made up the three shots by which he trailed Ogilvie to begin the day and held a one-shot lead after finishing the front nine.

Then, at the 433-yard 10th, Leonard rolled in an 11-footer for a birdie, but Ogilvie went in the other direction. He drove it in the pond that guards the left side of the length of the fairway, took a penalty, hit his third shot onto the fairway and his fourth into a bunker, then chopped it out to eight feet and made the putt for a double-bogey six.

“The tournament was over when I hit it into the water,” Ogilvie said.

Call it a three-shot swing and a four-shot lead for Leonard over Clark, Ogilvie and Peter Lonard.

Loren Roberts closed fast when he birdied three of the last four holes to tie for fourth with Lonard, who struggled with his putting and shot an even-par 72. Tim Herron’s closing 66 moved him from a tie for 22nd into a tie for sixth with John Senden.

As it turned out, it wasn’t Phil Mickelson’s day, either. Mickelson was three-under for the round and within three shots of Leonard when he fell out of contention and wound up in a tie for 12th.

Mickelson made a bogey at the par-three 12th, missing a four-footer for par, then double-bogeyed the par-four 13th when he hit his second shot into the pond that protects the right side of the fairway, all the way to the green.

Meanwhile, Leonard tugged his cap lower and steadily played his way home. Leonard had only two birdies on the back side, none after the 11th, but he didn’t need any more. Clark held a slim chance, three shots down with three to play, but he bogeyed the 16th when he missed a six-footer for par after a drive that went too far left.

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Clark, who won the previous week in South Africa and traveled 30 hours to play in his first Hope, had never seen any of the four courses before.

“I really didn’t expect a whole lot,” he said.

Maybe not, but Clark’s runner-up check is $413,600, the same as Ogilvie.

As for Leonard, he follows Mickelson and Mike Weir as Hope winners, who just happened to win the Masters a few months later. You never know, it could happen again, which brings up one more question for Leonard to answer.

Is Augusta calling?

“I certainly hope to keep that streak alive,” he said.

*

Up Next

* What: FBR Open.

* When: Thursday-Sunday.

* Where: TPC of Scottsdale (Ariz).

* On TV: Thursday, 1-3 p.m., USA; Friday, 1-3 p.m., USA; Saturday, noon-3 p.m., Channel 2; Sunday, noon-3 p.m., Channel 2.

* Defending champion: Jonathan Kaye.

* Purse: $5.2 million.

* Winning share: $936,000.

* Feb. 10-13: AT&T; Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

* Feb. 17-20: Nissan Open (Riviera Country Club).


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