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Leonard planning Ryder Cup charge

Justin Leonard is not bothered by being a long way from his target.

The cool Texan likes to take his opponents, and critics, by surprise and he intends to do just that again by returning to the U.S. Ryder Cup team for this September's matches.

In 1999 at The Country Club, Leonard's 45-foot putt on the 17th became a celebrated moment in Ryder Cup history as he clinched the decisive half point against Europe's Jose Maria Olazabel that secured the coveted trophy for the United States.

At the 1997 British Open at Royal Troon, Leonard came from five strokes behind after three rounds to soar past Jesper Parnevik on the final day and clinch his first major title.

Last year, after 12 months without a victory, Leonard underlined his determination by posting a comprehensive five-shot win in the Texan Open at LaCantera.

Now, as he looks to turn around a shaky start to his 2001 season, Leonard's path to success has again turned into another uphill climb. He has slumped to 50th on the PGA tour money list with $394,166 from 12 events and lies precariously at 21st in the Ryder Cup rankings.

His hopes of making the U.S. Ryder Cup team for the defence of the trophy at The Belfry in September appear to hinge on a wildcard from captain Curtis Strange or a blistering second half of the season to earn an automatic berth with a top-10 points ranking.

The unflappable Leonard is backing himself to do the latter.

"Historically, I start to play well at this time of the year," Leonard said on Monday during a promotional visit to New York.

His current ranking, however, leaves him a long climb as he continues his development from emerging star to consistent contender.

The 28-year-old is relying on subtle changes to his backswing to drive the comeback.

Adjustments to his address and set up, that have seen a greater transfer of weight to his right side, have made Leonard confident of eliminating the lateral movement he says had crept into his back swing.

He said he now felt more confident in shortening his swing when needed and predicted more consistency in his game.

"Any time you make changes to improve something there is an element of risk involved," he said. "I'm comfortable with my current position. I've seen positives in practice rounds and some of my play and I now know which way I am heading."

In an attempt to cement the changes to his swing and accumulate Ryder Cup points, Leonard has mapped out an arduous schedule and will play four consecutive tournaments in May and June.

Leonard hopes he will begin his charge at next week's Byron Nelson Classic. He will then play the Colonial at Forth Worth, the Kemper Open in Maryland and The Memorial at Muirhead Village.

The Dallas native is undaunted by the workload.

"The only thing that will surprise me is if I don't come out of the other end totally happy with my swing and where I am this season" he said.

Leonard admits his urgency to fine-tune his swing was partially inspired by seeing Tiger Woods take possession of all four major titles with his recent Masters victory.

Leonard finished at 1-under-par, 15 shots adrift of Woods at Augusta. He described the effort as "heartening" but says he emerged knowing he had to work harder with his swing adjustments.

"Tiger has set the standard and we all know we have to improve to challenge him. In a way he has probably forced me to adjust things sooner rather than later," Leonard said.

After six years on the Tour, Leonard began experimenting with changes to his swing in December. He was surprised by two top 10 finishes within the next month, tied ninth at the World Match Play and tied eighth at the Mercedes, but now calls that "beginner's luck".

What followed was one of the most forgettable periods of Leonard's career.

Justin Leonard in action. Allsport.

From January 28 through April 15, he missed the cut five times with his best finish a tie for 27th place at the Masters.

It took the familiar surroundings of the Houston Open two weeks ago to get Leonard going.

His tie for fourth behind winner Hal Sutton boosted his confidence and now he is eagerly looking forward to the coming weeks, and another rousing Ryder Cup experience.

"If I continue to do the things I'm doing and work hard, the Ryder Cup (selection) will take care of itself," Leonard said.

A prediction worth considering, as it comes from a player who will always be remembered for turning a testing 45-footer into a Ryder Cup clincher.

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