Justin Leonard happy to be back at Troon
Much is different in Justin Leonard's life since he won the British Open at Royal Troon seven years ago. The affable Texan is 32 now, with a baby girl. He is much stronger physically, with a fitness instructor and a different teacher, Butch Harmon, who has reworked his swing.
Leonard's career was additionally defined by "The Putt Heard 'Round the World" -- his off-the-charts 50-footer at Brookline to give the U.S. its amazing Ryder Cup win in 1999.
What's also different is that while Leonard's game is hardly peaking, he comes to Troon this week knowing he can win on this same storied property that surrendered his final-round 65 in 1997, overcoming Jesper Parnevik's four-stroke lead.
Although Leonard had won six weeks before in '97 -- at the Kemper Open for his second PGA Tour victory, coming from five shots back -- Troon was only his third British Open appearance.
As things evolved, that might have been crucial to Leonard's story.
"I do look back and wonder about those things," he says now. "My lack of experience at the time may have been one of my greatest assets. I didn't feel the pressure of expectations like it was my tournament to lose or anything like that. I was just trying to shoot the best score I can."
Leonard was sufficiently confident in his game -- blindly fortunate, perhaps -- to switch from a wooden driver to a metal one for the second round. He added as much as 20 yards off the tee and made two eagles.
Some Troon magic this week would be highly appreciated by the man whose career is sometimes underrated despite wins at the 1992 U.S. Amateur, the 1994 NCAA championship and the 1998 Players Championship. A month after his British Open win, he was second to Davis Love III at the PGA Championship.
Perhaps the rekindling of so many wonderful Troon memories can revive Leonard's game, which has produced one top 10 finish in 2004 and missed cuts in his past three events -- the Memorial, U.S. Open and Booz Allen Classic.
"I've got better shots, my swings are more sound, but I am not getting the same results out of my game right now as I was at this time in 1997," Leonard said recently. "I feel I am a more complete player, but this year just have not shown it. If I can put things together like I did in 1997, I can compete on a high level there."
Scottish links courses clearly have been Leonard's most comfortable British Open venues -- not surprising, having grown up in Texas, where balls launched too high are usually ineffective because of the wind. He lost to Paul Lawrie in a playoff at Carnoustie in 1999, then tied for 14th at Muirfield in 2002.
"I've always worked on controlling the height of my shots," Leonard said. "I've been able to keep the ball low and have a good short game, which sets up well for links courses. Also, there's not a premium on distance. I'm an average-length hitter, and that plays more into my hands."
In 1997 Leonard probably displayed as much about his character as he did his game. In a humble, classy victory speech he praised the men he beat and those he played with during the week, even calling his Sunday partner, Fred Couples, "really one of my favorite players."
He teared up and had to stop for a moment when mentioning that he was alone in Scotland, without Dallas family or friends.
That will be different this time. His wife, Amanda, daughter Reese and his parents are here for this year's Open.
When Amanda gave birth last year, Justin pulled out of the John Deere Classic, four shots from the lead, and skipped the final round to be with her in the delivery room.
"I won't be alone this year," Leonard said, "but, hopefully, that won't change the results."
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