Jan. 27, 1997
Jan. 27, 1997

Table of Contents
Jan. 27, 1997

Faces In The Crowd


Last year's Phoenix Open ended with Phil Mickelson beating me in
sudden death in front of the largest gallery in the history of
golf--more than 150,000 spectators, most of whom were rooting
for Phil because he had gone to college in the area and now
makes his home there. Because it was such a close finish and
because a few fans yelled some inappropriate things at me at
inappropriate moments, a lot of people assume that I must have
bad memories. The truth is just the opposite. Phoenix was my
best learning experience since turning pro 2 1/2 years ago. And
believe it or not, I actually had a good time.

This is an article from the Jan. 27, 1997 issue Original Layout

Sure, I was annoyed after losing, and the catcalls were part of
the reason. You don't expect to hear "Miss it!" while you're
over a crucial putt, as I did in the playoff. After Phil birdied
the third extra hole to win, I was asked if I'd be back and I
said I wasn't sure. Mainly, I was hurting because I had done so
many things well enough to win but still hadn't been able to get
my first victory as a pro. Playing with Phil, I had shot 69 in
the last round and even birdied the first hole in sudden death.
Once I sorted out my disappointment, though, I realized there
was no way I would skip Phoenix. Two weeks later I wrote to
tournament officials asking them to make my hotel reservations
for 1997.

The whole atmosphere during last year's final round was
electric, like a Texas-Oklahoma football game. At one point Phil
said, "This is what it's all about." I said, "You're right. This
is cool." I knew a lot of people would be revved up because
Phil's a local and Phoenix was hosting the Super Bowl the next
day. A small minority got carried away, but they didn't affect
my performance. Bottom line: I didn't take advantage of as many
opportunities as Phil did, and he deserved the victory. But I
didn't come away with nothing. I became stronger mentally from
losing in that type of situation. I learned that I have what it
takes to win and that I enjoy the pressure. Playing that round
was like looking at myself under a microscope. What I saw
increased my confidence.

The experience paid off later. In August I won the Buick Open.
The next month, on the very tense final day of the Presidents
Cup, I was three down against Steve Elkington. I made a birdie
on the 16th and a 25-footer for another at 17 to get the match
to the 18th. On the final green I was looking at a 12-foot
birdie putt when Steve holed a 25-footer to beat me. Still, I'll
always remember how much I was looking forward to stroking that
final putt, and that's due to what happened at Phoenix.

So no more condolences. I can't wait to give it another try in
Phoenix this week, although I am happy that the Super Bowl is in
New Orleans.

Justin Leonard, 24, is a former U.S. Amateur and NCAA champion.