Sunday Driver With another of his patented late charges, the unflappable Justin Leonard blew by the field to win the Players Championship

April 05, 1998

Justin Leonard was talking into a television camera behind the
18th green on Sunday afternoon--one of those pro forma victory
burbles expected of tournament winners--when PGA Tour veteran
Lee Janzen crept behind him and administered a two-handed finger
trill to his rib cage. Leonard's response: a blink or two,
followed by more of his well-mannered blah-blah-blah. "Not even
ticklish," said an awed Janzen. "That's how good he is."

Leonard left everyone at the 25th Players Championship wondering
what it takes to crack his composure. For the third time in nine
months, he started a final round five strokes in arrears, only
to wind up the winner. Last June he picked up six shots on
third-round-leader Mark Wiebe and won the Kemper Open. In July
he gained eight shots on third-round-leader Jesper Parnevik and
won the British Open. This time, under a blue Florida sky on the
TPC at Sawgrass, he outplayed another third-round
leader--Janzen--by 12 strokes in the final round to earn
$720,000, the PGA Tour's biggest check.

Leonard is relentless in pursuit; bookstores would sell a lot of
copies of his biography to process servers and repo men. "I've
been in this position a couple of times," he said on Sunday
evening, after he had fought off challenges from a
self-proclaimed Arkansas redneck and a break-your-heart family
man playing for his daughter in a stroller and his gravely ill
mother in a wheelchair. "I knew that this golf tournament was
within reach."

When something is within reach, Leonard grabs it. He's a
25-year-old perfectionist who says his strength is "managing my
game and avoiding mistakes." In another life he would be a
wedding planner--the kind who hires a disc jockey instead of a
band for the reception because musicians smoke and make rude
noises in the bathroom.

He may be a bit anal, but he can putt. (He needed only 24 putts
on Saturday and made final-round putts of 10, 12, 20, 20 and 30
feet.) He can also drive. And he can cut your heart out with a
single stroke, as he did Sunday by hitting to tap-in range on
the 215-yard 8th hole. "When he roped that one-iron in there,"
said his father, Larry, "I thought, You just don't see any
better golf shots."

As the week began, two other players were under the microscope:
John Daly because it was the one-year anniversary of the
alcoholic meltdown that had him cruising Jacksonville Beach like
a spring-breaker and ultimately trashing his hotel room and his
marriage; and Tiger Woods because he had not won on the Tour
since last summer, panicking sponsors and violating prophesy.
Neither player seemed bothered by the scrutiny, or by their
absence from the leader board. Woods shrugged off his
two-over-par, 35th-place finish and assured everyone that he's
ready to defend his Masters title next week in Georgia. Daly,
meanwhile, played dogged, intelligent golf at Sawgrass, shooting
a final-round 69 and finishing 16th.

Janzen, a former U.S. Open champion, teed off Sunday afternoon
with a three-stroke lead, and most observers expected him to
easily hold on to that margin and reprise his Players win of
1995. Instead, he quickly yielded the momentum to Glen Day, a
little-known Arkansas pro with a red-clay twang and a
disconcerting habit of switching without warning from redneck
ribaldry to homespun sincerity. His best previous finish had
been a second in the 1994 Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic, but he
played beautifully on Sunday and made the turn in 33, two shots
ahead of the surging Len Mattiace. It looked like a brand-new
Day, but an inner voice may have been telling him he wasn't
going to win. "Seems like a lot of the tournaments when I play
really good," Day had said on Saturday night, "someone shoots
zero."

Two someones nearly did. The 30-year-old Mattiace, whose biggest
paycheck to date is the $250,000 he got for winning the 1996
Compaq World Putting Championship, rolled in birdies on 10, 11
and 12 and was suddenly leading at 10 under. Then Leonard, who
made a series of long Sunday putts at the British Open,
one-putted holes 10 through 15, four for birdies. The on-course
scoreboards nearly blew fuses from the lead changes, but when
Leonard teed off on 16, he was at 11 under, one ahead of
Mattiace and four ahead of Day.

That's when Mattiace made a strategic error. He had putted
brilliantly all day, but on the island-green 17th he couldn't
find a puttable surface. Needing only 130 yards to safely reach
land, Mattiace flew a nine-iron 159 yards, right over the flag
and the green and into the water. His next effort, a 101-yard
sand wedge from the drop area, wound up in a pot bunker between
the flag and the drink. Then he skulled his sand shot over the
green and into the water.

"I just covered my face and said, 'He doesn't deserve this,'"
said his wife, Kristen, who was behind the 17th green with their
infant daughter, Gracee, in a stroller and Mattiace's mother,
Joyce, 61, in a wheelchair. (Joyce is undergoing therapy for
lung cancer.) Before Mattiace putted out, Kristin wheeled Gracee
through the buzzing gallery toward the 18th. Someone told her
he'd made an 8.

Stranger: "He's choking."

Kristin: "He's my husband."

Stranger: "Oh. I should have put that a different way."

Happily, Mattiace saved face with a birdie at 18--good for a
fifth-place tie--and scored again by being gracious in defeat.
"I walked off 17 and saw my mother in the wheelchair," he said.
"I thought, I just made an 8, but I'm out here playing. It's
just a game."

This game went to Leonard, who three-putted the 72nd hole for a
final-round 67 and a total of 278, two strokes better than Day
and a late-charging Tom Lehman. It was Leonard's fourth Tour win
and a rebuke to those who tout Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and
David Duval as Tiger's rivals-in-waiting. "I don't feel left
out," Leonard said on Saturday. "It's nice to be mentioned along
with those players, but it's not something that drives me."

Maybe not, but Leonard was spotted on Sunday morning checking
out the Champions Room, a locker room reserved for past winners
of the Players. "We need to get better security," said Janzen
jokingly, but in the end neither he nor the rest of the field
could deny Leonard access to that oasis of talc and hair tonic.

After bogeying the first hole on Sunday and wrestling all
afternoon with his driver, Janzen's disappointment was palpable.
He hadn't won a Tour event since 1995, but a good showing in
last year's PGA Championship and a comeback singles victory over
Jose Maria Olazabal in the Ryder Cup had restored his
confidence. "I think my game is better now than it was when I
won the Open," he said after taking the lead on Saturday. "But
there may be some things I was doing better then."

Like holding a lead. By the fourth hole on Sunday, Janzen was
languidly kicking his divots--near tantrums, considering his
usual stoicism. "Nothing good was happening," he said later,
"and I ran out of holes to do anything about it." He wound up
tied for 13th with an unsightly 79.

There were no such problems for Leonard. Two hours after holing
out on Sunday, he stood in the dark, trying to sign autographs
for a cluster of patient fans next to the clubhouse. "Does
anyone have a flashlight?" Leonard asked a state trooper. No one
did, but he kept signing while someone went inside to switch on
a light. You couldn't see Leonard's expression, but you could
guess how he felt.

Tickled.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND PLAYING THROUGH Three times in the past nine months Leonard has made up a five-stroke deficit on the final day. [Justin Leonard playing golf] COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY BLASTED! Mattiace hit one bunker and dunked two balls at 17 on Sunday, flushing any chance he had of catching Leonard. [Len Mattiace playing golf]

"Seems like when I play really good," Day said, "someone always
shoots zero."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)