By the time the British Open drew to a close last July, Mike
Hulbert, watching from his home in Orlando, had already called
Justin Leonard's answering machine three times. Hulbert, 40, is
14 years older than Leonard, yet they are practice partners,
road roomies and fishing buddies. Hulbert first called with
congratulations when Leonard putted out for a final-round 65
that put him in the lead. He called again 20 minutes later when
Jesper Parnevik, who had started the day with a five-stroke edge
on Leonard, finished three strokes behind him. Hulbert called a
third time because, well, just because.
This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue
Then Hulbert saw Leonard do something so extraordinary that he
was forced to pick up the phone one more time. This time,
Leonard's clutch performance came during the awards ceremony,
when he accepted the claret jug. "He pulled out a piece of paper
and started thanking everybody," Hulbert says. Think of all the
adrenaline surging through a young professional who had just won
a major and removed the "someday" stamp from his name. Then
imagine him sitting down somewhere, collecting his thoughts and
making a list of people he wanted to acknowledge. "He's much
more mature than his age," Hulbert says. "He will easily get on
the Senior tour when he's 42."
In fact Leonard, who turns 26 on the Monday before the U.S.
Open, is barely halfway to the Senior tour. But if maturity
isn't the 15th club in Leonard's bag, then patience is. He
proved it at Royal Troon last year and again at the Players
Championship in March, when he shot a final-round 67 to overtake
the best field of the year. It's no coincidence that in the last
five majors, Leonard has a first, a second and two other top
10s. No one has a better showing, and no one has played better
on Major Sundays.
To paraphrase Bobby Jones's famous comment about Jack Nicklaus,
the 5'9", 160-pound Leonard plays a game with which the current
Tour is not familiar. The Senior tour, however, knows it quite
well: Leonard works the ball. In this era of Tiger and titanium,
when length is becoming a necessity rather than a luxury,
Leonard turns back the clock to a time before Woods's woods
threatened to make some hallowed courses obsolete. He can hit it
low, as any good golfer raised in the Texas winds must. He can
also hit it left to right and right to left. His game is retro;
this is how golf was played before Bertha got big. Like the
Japanese soldiers who refused to admit that World War II was
over and emerged from the jungle only in the 1970s, Leonard
didn't surrender his persimmon driver until last year. He says
his conversion to titanium and a rigorous workout program have
added yards to his drives. Still, he ranks in the bottom 15% in
"He knows his strengths are chipping and putting, and he plays
to them," says Harrison Frazar, a boyhood friend who joined
Leonard on the Tour this year. Adds Leonard's agent, Vinny
Giles, the 1972 U.S. Amateur champion, "He's not going to hit a
three-wood 260 yards over water. He knows he can put his ball 85
yards out and hit a wedge closer than somebody else will hit
that three-wood and a 70-foot putt." In other words, Giles says,
"one of Justin's greatest traits is he knows what he can't do."
Lacking a power game, Leonard turned to creativity. At the Royal
Oaks course in Dallas where Frazar and Leonard grew up, the 9th
hole is a par-4 dogleg right that requires a 200-yard carry in
order to clear a creek. While his buddies pounded their drives
into and, eventually, over the creek, Leonard spent his youth
hitting right of the water to the area around the 7th green and
the 8th tee, then lifting a shot over the trees to the green. To
this day Leonard continues to think his way around a course.
The ability to shape shots doesn't carry the cachet it once did
on the Tour practice range. On the subject of swings, the
world's top golfers can be as gossipy as seventh-graders at a
slumber party. So it is said, sotto voce, that Leonard doesn't
hit the ball that well. When asked about this bit of gossip,
Leonard's eyebrows inch up. "They probably say that because I
hit different shots," he says. "I hit it at different heights.
If I went out and hit one shot, a five-yard draw or a 10-yard
cut, and hit it every time, I'd have respect as a ball striker."
There is, of course, something specious about questioning the
swing of a golfer whose three biggest victories came at the TPC
at Sawgrass, Royal Troon and Muirfield Village, where Leonard
won the 1992 U.S. Amateur. These three courses demand exacting
golf, and the players who win there are rarely one-hit wonders.
Still, even Leonard experiences days when he can't find the
fairway. If you want to learn the secret to his success, don't
study him when he's standing on the 10th tee on Sunday with that
pit-bull set to his full jaw--watch on a Thursday when he can't
put the ball in the fairway. "I've learned to be patient. I've
never given up," Leonard says. "Not that other guys give up, but
if they get three or four over, they might try to do something
they wouldn't ordinarily try, like try to make a 40-footer."
In his opening round at the GTE Byron Nelson Classic last month,
Leonard hit just two fairways on the front side, but when he
made a 25-foot eagle putt on 11, he was one under. "If a person
suddenly can't hear," said his coach, Randy Smith, as he walked
the round with Leonard, "his eyesight, taste and smell get
better and better." Buoyed by a sand save at 15, where he hit
from the downslope of the bunker and put the ball within a foot
of the cup, Leonard birdied two of the last three holes. It may
have been like Eric Clapton playing Layla on a five-string
guitar, but Leonard turned what should have been a 74 into a 68.
"He's a thief. He had a day like this at Winged Foot," Smith
said afterward, referring to the 1997 PGA, where Leonard
finished second to Davis Love III. Leonard's assessment of his
play that week is succinct. "I stunk the first two rounds," he
says. "Five or six times I had to get up and down from 60 to 90
yards." He neglected to mention that in the third round he shot
a course-record 65.
Tom Lehman, who finished tied for second behind Leonard at the
Players, was paired with him in the first two rounds. "He wasn't
hitting it very well, playing far from his best," Lehman says.
"But he's so poised. The lesson is, hang in there, you never
know what might happen on the weekend."
If Lehman, who spent six years overseas and on the Nike tour
searching for his game, were any more patient, he would either
be Mother Teresa's replacement or a Red Sox fan. Yet here he is
talking about learning fortitude from someone so young that Tour
veteran Bobby Wadkins still teasingly calls him Junior Pro.
Most of Leonard's close friends on the Tour are much older than
he: Love, 34; Hulbert, 40; Jeff Sluman, 40; and Tom Kite, 48. He
has friends his age, such as Frazar, the second-leading money
winner ($364,354) among Tour rookies this season. Yet even with
Frazar, a former roommate and teammate at Texas, Leonard is the
mentor. Frazar says Leonard has tutored him on life on the
road--how to pack and where to stay--and has played practice
rounds with him to help him learn the Tour's courses. Leonard
also has pointed out the red tape that can entangle a Tour naif.
"When I got a special invitation to Colonial," Frazar says,
"Justin said, 'Don't forget to commit.'"
Leonard lives in Turtle Creek just north of downtown Dallas, a
gated area of high-rises and town houses hospitable to people
with disposable income, not disposable diapers. His dining room
serves as his office. On the living-room coffee table are three
books: Texas Golf Legends, Byron Nelson and The Hogan Mystique.
Alongside them are a hardcover tribute to the Porsche 911 and a
Neiman-Marcus catalog. If the reading material isn't enough of a
tip-off, the blacks and various shades of brown in the room
scream "bachelor guy."
What with the classic wardrobe, the fashion shoots (he was cover
model for The New York Times men's fashion magazine this
spring), the leased jet and the women crowding around the
scoring tent, waiting for him to emerge, Leonard has the
trappings of the quintessential glam bachelor. But he isn't
gossip-column fodder. Off the course Leonard plays to the middle
of the green, when he plays at all. He won't get involved with
anything--or anyone--that might get in the way of his game. "If
we stay together and he's got an early tee time," Hulbert says,
"we're eating early." Leonard is even willing to endure the
abuse of his fishing buddies who watch in mock-horror while
Smith unhooks Leonard's catches. "Everybody gets hooked,"
Hulbert says. "If you're a fisherman, you've got to come back
with blood." Everybody except Leonard, because Smith insists on
doing the dirty work lest Leonard be sidelined by a barb in
those all-feeling hands.
While Nike has built a global marketing campaign around Woods's
ability to break down barriers, Leonard has clawed his way to
success by respecting them. It is ironic, then, that Nike made a
run at Leonard last year. "They wanted to do a total program,"
Giles says. "Clothes, headcovers, etc." Nike and Justin Leonard?
What slogan could they have used? "I am not Tiger Woods"?
Instead, Leonard signed a four-year contract last winter with
Ralph Lauren, the very embodiment of the establishment. While
Woods's Nike ad campaign took on the hip, ironic humor of the
Seinfeld age, Leonard's Polo ads are Gatsbyesque in tone and
fabric. "The ads are very understated," Giles says. "Justin's
decision to stay with Polo was image-related, the image he felt
most comfortable with. Somewhat preppy, for lack of a better
term." Leonard knows what he likes, which is to say he likes
what he knows.
Majors often are won on Sunday not by the player who makes a
great shot but by the player who doesn't make a bad one. Think
of last year's U.S. Open, when Ernie Els made pars at
Congressional while Lehman, Colin Montgomerie and Jeff Maggert
did not. Think of Nick Faldo, whose three Masters championships
have come when Scott Hoch (1989), Raymond Floyd (1990) and Greg
Norman (1996) fell apart. No one is immune for going
jelly-legged on a major Sunday, but in just four seasons as a
professional, Leonard has demonstrated that he will be a fixture
on PGA leader boards for years to come.
If the Senior tour doesn't get him first.
Bertha got big.
get in the way of his game.