It wasn't as momentous as, say, winning the U.S. Open, but last
week at the Kemper Open the new and improved Justin Leonard
enjoyed one of the more satisfying triumphs of his career, this
one over the 6th hole of the TPC at Avenel, in Potomac, Md.
Although the sharply doglegged, 520-yard par-5 with a green
fronted by Rock Run Creek was conceived as a dangerous
risk-reward hole, in this age of Tiger and titanium, Avenel's 6th
has become a trifling par-5, "reachable in two for every player
in the field," Leonard said last week. Every player but,
apparently, one. In six previous trips to Avenel, Leonard had
never knocked it on, as his brand of small ball forced him to
back down on the course's shortest par-5. All that changed last
Thursday when Leonard arrived at the seductive 6th armed with an
overhauled swing and upgraded attitude. A good drive left him 236
yards to the hole, and from a downhill, sidehill lie he ripped a
three-wood to within two feet of the hole for a kick-in eagle
that anchored his 68. "Last year I would have laid up, no
question," Leonard said. "I'm starting to play a different game."
A 68 for Leonard used to mean three 30-foot bombs, a chip-in and
par saves from all over the yard. (The quintessential old Leonard
performance was his first round at the 1997 British Open, when,
playing into a three-club wind howling off the Firth of Clyde, he
didn't hit a green on the back nine at Royal Troon and still came
in with a 35, a Houdini act that keyed his victory.) This 68 was
something else altogether, a methodical display of precision
golf, during which Leonard hit 12 fairways and 15 greens. He
continued to strike the ball with authority on Friday, averaging
292 yards per drive on a soggy course and making only one bogey
during another 68. That was Leonard's 15th straight round at par
or better, and it left him three back of the midway lead.
Beginning on Friday afternoon a series of nasty storms wreaked
havoc with the Kemper, and on Saturday, while 35 players labored
to complete their second rounds, Leonard never touched a club,
spending the day at the movies with his girlfriend, Amanda Beach.
When the 36-hole finale commenced on Sunday morning, Leonard had
clearly lost his rhythm. On the 4th hole he yanked his drive
into a pond and took double bogey. On 12 Leonard sliced his tee
shot into the bushes, clipped a tree with his recovery and went
on to make an unsightly triple bogey, lowlighting a third-round
78. Then a funny thing happened: Leonard fixed his swing. He
played error-free golf the rest of the way despite sloppy
conditions and a series of weather-related interruptions,
shooting a 70 that spilled over into Monday, when Frank
Lickliter finally won the tournament. "I wanted to get to where,
if I wasn't hitting it well, I could not only feel what was
wrong, but also fix it," Leonard says. "To be able to do that in
the middle of a tournament, in the middle of a round, is the
It was yet another promising development for Leonard, 28, who
blew through the Texas swing like a cyclone, racking up three top
six finishes. This return to form--or rather, this new, improved
form--is the result of six months of toil, and with the U.S. Open
two weeks away Leonard is again looking like a contender for
golf's biggest prizes. "When I set out to improve my swing, the
goal was to raise the level of my game so the lows wouldn't be so
low and the highs would be even higher," says Leonard, who, in
addition to his victory at Troon, was runner-up at the 1997 PGA
and '99 British Open. "I expect to be better than I've ever
June 3, 2001
Big talk because, lest anyone has forgotten, Leonard was once
very, very good. When he broke through at Troon as a mature
25-year-old, Leonard seemed positioned to be to Tiger Woods what
Trevino was to Nicklaus, a gutsy competitor, a creative
shotmaker, a short-game wizard who would steal his share of
trophies. Leonard fortified the reputation with a rousing
come-from-behind victory in '98 at the Players Championship, but
it would be 2 1/2 years before his next victory. Even after
taking last September's Texas Open, Leonard wasn't satisfied.
Within two months he had begun to tear apart his old, handsy
swing built on hair-trigger timing. "People ask, 'Why would you
change when you were 14th on the money list last year?' Because
I made all my money in four weeks," Leonard says of his victory
and three second-place finishes, his only top 10s last season.
"The other 24 weeks I was banging my head against the wall."
He had begun to look for answers at last August's NEC
Invitational, where, Leonard says, he hit the ball "horribly"
over the first two rounds. On Friday evening he was digging a
hole at the range, alone but for Woods and his instructor, Butch
Harmon. "Justin wandered down, said he was hitting it like crap
and wondered if I could give him a look," Harmon says.
Harmon, like a lot of others, had long ago detected the flaws in
Leonard's swing, beginning with his habit of putting the majority
of his weight on his left side at address. What followed was an
exaggerated weight shift to generate power. "For a long time I
needed that," says the 5'9", 160-pound Leonard. In typically
droll tones, he adds, "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a
really big guy."
As a result of Leonard's excessive lateral movement, the
rotation of his body and the path of his club were often out of
sync, forcing him to square the face with his hands at impact, a
risky proposition. During their 20-minute discussion at the NEC,
Harmon coaxed Leonard to move his arms faster on the
downswing--or, put another way, to swing harder. The change
clicked during a final-round 66 at the NEC that vaulted Leonard
into a tie for second, and he sustained the momentum through the
Harmon's quick fix, though, didn't hold up, and Leonard spent
most of the season-ending American Express Championships lost in
the oak trees of Valderrama. Demoralized anew, he phoned Harmon
from Spain and scheduled a formal lesson for the Monday after
Thanksgiving at Harmon's Las Vegas headquarters. It was a
wrenching call for Leonard to make. Since age eight, when he'd
shown up at Dallas's Royal Oaks Country Club with a set of his
grandmother's clubs, Leonard's only coach had been Randy Smith,
Royal Oaks's longtime pro. Seeking another opinion put Leonard in
"an uncomfortable position," he says, but adds, "My professional
relationship with Randy has changed, but not the personal, and
that's the most important thing." Says Smith, "It's not about me,
and it's not about Butch. It's about Justin and his success.
That's why I've stayed out of it the best I can."
Over two days in Las Vegas, Harmon revamped Leonard's stance,
moving his head back about five inches in relation to the ball
and shifting his weight from 70-30 favoring the left side to
60-40 toward the right. (With his base stabilized, Leonard could
shorten his swing.) "Visually, it was so weird. Looking down at
the ball, it felt as if I were going to hit everything fat," says
Leonard, who spent December on the Royal Oaks driving range lost
in five-hour practice sessions while Smith tried to stay busy in
the pro shop.
Leonard was still fighting the changes when the 2001 season
began, and it showed. He missed the cut at five of his first 11
tournaments--he'd never missed more than six in any of his six
previous seasons on Tour--and was languishing at 69th on the money
list heading into the Houston Open in late April. "For a while I
was looking pretty stupid," Leonard says. But not to Harmon.
Though they rarely spent time together, Leonard was videotaping
his swing and e-mailing the images to Harmon, who could see
improvement. "He's a quick study because he's smart and
dedicated," says Harmon.
The hard work began to pay off in Houston, where Leonard tied for
fourth. The next time out, at the Byron Nelson Classic, Leonard
exploded with a third-round 61, a career-low by two strokes.
There is a precedent for this performance that's too obvious to
ignore: It was at the Nelson in 1999 that Woods's swing changes
finally took hold, and his first-round 61 that week launched a
juggernaut. Leonard will never overpower a course the way Woods
can, but as a more consistent ball striker, he'll be able to make
a stand on the right track. Southern Hills, site of the U.S.
Open, might be the place he gets started.
"Good lord, that course sets up perfect for Justin," says Smith.
When the 1995 and '96 Tour Championships were played at Southern
Hills, Leonard tied for seventh and sixth, respectively. He loves
the sight lines off the tee and the challenge of getting up and
down on the tiny greens. A twisty, claustrophobic layout,
Southern Hills will also take the driver out of the hands of the
longest hitters, which should help Leonard.
Tulsa in mid-June figures to be a crucible with a heat index in
the triple digits, and Leonard is now better equipped to thrive
under those conditions. When he sees highlights of his historic
putt at the '99 Ryder Cup, Leonard has one thought: Man, those
pants sure are tight. Since then he has gotten stronger and
leaner, having lost nearly 15 pounds thanks to the 20 miles a
week he runs with Beach, who has completed two marathons. Leonard
is training for the White Rock Marathon in December and has
turned into such a fitness nut that when he's home in Dallas, he
and Beach often get up at 6 a.m. to meet a group of fellow
diehards for predawn runs.
Leonard is smart enough to know that when it comes to raising the
level of his game, it's a long journey, not a sprint. Though he
was disappointed that his Sunday morning blues at the Kemper cost
him a shot at his sixth career victory, he left with his laser
focus trained on the U.S. Open and beyond. "I'm thrilled with the
progress," he said. "Every week gets a little more exciting."
"People ask, 'Why would you change when you were 14th on the
money list last year?'" Leonard says. "Because I made all my
money in four weeks."