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Justin Leonard compiling solid career

Butch Harmon figured everything was fine when the appointment got canceled.

One of his clients, Justin Leonard, was coming off his worst season. He failed to qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time since he joined the PGA Tour. He didn't win a tournament for only the second time in nine years. And he was haunted by two bogeys in the final three holes at Whistling Straits that cost him a major championship.

If that wasn't enough, Leonard switched equipment for the first time in 10 years.

And by the way, his wife is expecting their second daughter a few weeks after the Masters.

Hello, Butch?

Not so quick.

``I knew he was doing well because he was going to come out to see me, and he never did,'' Harmon said from his home in Las Vegas. ``Every time I talked to him, he told me how happy he was and how good he was swinging. And I told him, 'There's no need to come out here if you're happy with the way you feel.'''

More evidence of his quiet confidence came at the Buick Invitational, Leonard's first tournament of the year.

With his cap pulled low over his eyes, Leonard has the demeanor of a grim-faced Texan on the golf course. And when his game is not up to snuff, he can appear to be hotter than a jalapeno.

He was 3 over par early in the second round, already a dozen shots out of the lead and headed for a weekend off. Then on the fifth hole of the pitch-and-putt North course, Leonard hit his approach just short of a bunker in grass so deep he couldn't find his ball -- until he stepped on it.

Leonard raised his head and closed his eyes, then calmly asked for a rules official.

It was a one-stroke penalty, another bogey.

Standing on the seventh tee as he waited for the fairway to clear, Leonard laughed at his misfortune.

``Well, that was a first,'' he said. ``I'm getting all the bad stuff out of the way this week.''

He never finished his second round because fog engulfed Torrey Pines with just one hole to play. That meant Leonard had to show up at dawn the next day to play one hole so he could miss the cut. He belted his drive on the par-5 18th, hit a 3-wood some 30 feet below the pin and two-putted for birdie.

Why come back for one hole when a half-dozen other guys simply withdrew?

Leonard said he didn't feel right about not finishing a round. Then, with his sarcastic and understated sense of humor, he added, ``Plus, look at all the momentum I gave myself for next week.''

He wasn't kidding. Or maybe he just knew something no one else did.

Trailing by eight shots going into the weekend, Leonard made 15 birdies in rounds of 64-67 on the PGA West Palmer course to win the Bob Hope Classic by three shots.

``Sometimes you've got to take a couple of steps back to go forward,'' Leonard said. ``Tiger (Woods) has done that, and we're starting to see some results. Not that I tried to make changes with my game, but I was doing some things that were counterproductive. I was not playing good, so I would practice harder when I was at home.

``What I really needed was to get away from it.''

Leonard went two months without playing a tournament, during which he worked with Tom Stites on his new set of Nike irons. Stites lives in the Dallas area and used to work for Hogan, the blades Leonard had played since turning pro in 1994, which made the adjustment easier.

Still, a player of Leonard's stature who changes clubs will come under greater scrutiny, especially coming off a season that was below his standards. And that made his three-shot victory even sweeter.

``It takes a lot of pressure off,'' he said. ``With the combination of the year I had last year, and switching to new equipment, it shows the boys over at Nike that I'm serious about this, and I want to play as well as I can. It feels good to be able to do these things early.''

It was his first victory in nearly two years, which explains why Leonard's career sometimes goes unnoticed.

Until last year, Leonard and Woods were the only players who had never missed the Tour Championship since their first full season on tour. Leonard also is part of an elite group (Woods, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Gary Hallberg) of Americans who got PGA Tour cards without ever going to Q-school.

But the 32-year-old Texan often gets overlooked because of his style. In an age of power, he relies more on control than distance.

``With what we have going on now -- Tiger, Vijay, Ernie, Phil -- it's easy to fly under the radar,'' he said.

Leonard now has nine victories, including a British Open and The Players Championship, both times rallying from five shots behind in the final round. His victories have come in all shapes and sizes. He won the MCI Heritage three years ago without making a birdie in the final round, and his last two wins have come in shootouts (Bob Hope, Honda Classic).

``There's more than one way to win,'' Leonard said. ``If there wasn't, I'd be in the booth talking about it, and I don't have the voice or the face for TV.''


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