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Justin Leonard set for Bob Hope defence

Justin Leonard was unsure if he would even be able to make it to the first tee at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic last year.

Battling flulike symptoms, he not only made it to the tee, he went on to play 90 holes and win the five-day tournament.

Leonard, back to defend his title, recalled how his young daughter first got sick a year ago, then his wife -- and then he finally caught the cold.

"Tuesday night, I ended up getting sick," Leonard said. "I wasn't even sure Wednesday if I was going to be able to play."

On the final day, he rallied from three shots back to pass front-runner Joe Ogilvie on his way to a 5-under 67 and three-shot victory over Ogilvie and Tim Clark.

Leonard said he has learned to enjoy the hoopla that goes along with being paired with celebrities during the week.

"I've loosened up on the golf course, and I enjoy playing at the Hope," he said. "I've been in the celebrity rotation since I started playing, and I really enjoy it."

Last year, he partnered with actor Samuel L. Jackson and actor/comedians George Lopez and Cheech Marin.

"I had a ball. Sam is over there contemplating the game of golf and what it means, all this other stuff. And Cheech and George are trying to figure out who has had the best one-liner so far. That just cracks me up," Leonard said.

Having the gallery's attention focused on the celebrities can be a plus for the pro player.

"The spotlight is as much or more on the celebrities and amateurs as it is on the pros those first few days," Leonard said. "To be quite honest, that's kind of nice. I enjoy that."

Sean O'Hair, the tour's 2005 rookie of the year, was looking forward to the pro-am.

"I think playing with the amateurs, it kind of makes you a little more relaxed, and I play better whenever I'm a bit relaxed. I think everybody does," said O'Hair, who won once, had a second-place and four top-10 finishes last year.

The first four days of the Hope are pro-am, with only the pros competing Sunday. The cut to the low 70 scorers and ties is made after Saturday's round. The players rotate among four courses the first four days, with the final round of the 90-hole event at the new Classic Course at NorthStar.

Leonard faces a field that includes Phil Mickelson, who won the Hope in 2002 and 2004 and leads the tournament's career earnings list with $1.8 million. Mickelson, who tied for 12th in the event last year, again will use the tournament for his season's debut.

Others in the field include Fred Couples, Fred Funk, Davis Love III, Scott Verplank and 2003 Hope champion Mike Weir.

Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion and winner of 10 titles in his career, is eager to defend his Hope title.

"I think the tournaments where I feel like I've got a chance are in the desert," he said. "The greens on the coast, I don't particularly play well. My best chance is in the desert, and there are only two of those, Phoenix and the Hope.

"If I can play well in those events and get off to a good start on the West Coast, I feel like I'm already ahead of the game."

After taking the Hope last year, Leonard went on to win the St. Jude Classic and go 3-1-1 for the victorious U.S. Presidents Cup team.

January 18, 2006

 




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