The Anti-Tiger

With his old-fashioned style of play, Dallas native Justin Leonard is unlike any other young player in pro golf today.

July 2000By Comments

The storm has missed the Metroplex, and sunny weather is spreading all over Dallas’ Royal Oaks Country Club. Justin Leonard, however, is just not in the mood to play. To keep up with the longer-hitting stars of the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour and pull himself out of a recent slump, Texas’ best golfer has been working out full-bore with a personal trainer. “I’m beat up,” the 28-year-old admits with a rueful half-smile as we settle into a table in the clubhouse dining room. “My biceps are screaming. I probably couldn’t even get the club above my shoulder.”

Boyishly handsome with a dimpled chin and close-set, green-gray eyes, every dark hair in place, Leonard is wearing a navy Polo windbreaker and matching rain pants with an oatmeal-colored golf shirt. If he looks like he stepped out of a fashion ad, that befits his endorsement contract with Ralph Lauren. If his look is decidedly retro, that’s equally fitting. In the era of the young, New Economy, cap-worn-backward golfer, Leonard is the old school poster boy. In a way he is the anti-Tiger Woods, the last of the great traditionalists. His breakthrough victory came in the 1997 British Open, a tournament that perfectly suits his old-fashioned game as much as his old-fashioned persona. “I just wish I could play golf in a tie and pull out some hickory shafts and get a mashie niblick,” he once told an interviewer, “but I don’t think my equipment company makes any of those clubs.”

That’s why this month’s British Open at the birthplace of golf, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, seems tailor-made for Leonard. Does he have a chance against Woods and the rest? The only consecutive four-time champion of the now-defunct Southwest Conference, a former UT all-American, and National Amateur champion, Leonard proved that he has the game to be one of the best in the world with victories in the 1997 British Open and the 1998 Players Championship. Then last September, with a 45-foot putt to clinch the Ryder Cup—which earned him the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline “The Putt Heard ‘Round the World”—he showed he might have the magic as well.

At just five feet nine and 160 pounds, Leonard is not a power player. Instead, he wins with his wits (he writes a column for Golf Digest called “Justin’s Smart Golf”) and fortitude, plus a putting stroke that has been described by one fellow pro as “pure gold.” With his relatively flat, baseball-like swing (at the finish, he looks more like Mickey Mantle than Arnold Palmer), his trademark right-to-left ball flight, his ability to play in the wind, and his competitive intensity, he’s a golf star—like Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, and Tom Kite—in the classic Texas mold.

Well, sort of. It turns out that he has a few quirks. “Justin travels with the biggest suitcase you ever saw,” says Mike Hulbert, a touring pro who is one of Leonard’s closest friends. “It’s absolutely huge. He can fit more in a suitcase than anybody I’ve ever seen, but everything’s perfectly folded.”

“I’m a clotheshorse,” Leonard says with a smile. “I admit it.” Pro golfers are notoriously meticulous, creatures of exactitude—they’ll try to hit a shot not 150 yards but, say, exactly 154 yards—and Leonard, by most reports, takes the cake. “I’d call him hyperorganized,” Hulbert says. “We’ll get to a tournament and he’ll have his room confirmation number and his rental car confirmation number on a single page.” He has been known to hang his outfits in the closet in the order of the day he’ll wear them. It’s said he makes lists of his various lists.

“The organizational skills I get from her,” Justin acknowledges, pointing a thumb at his mother, as his parents join us at the table. Equally crisp in a dark suit accented by a bright cranberry shawl, Nancy Leonard beams at her son, accepting the compliment. They are birds of a feather, it appears, with sharp, cautious eyes and an air of precision and reserve. Nancy admits that she arranges all of Justin’s mail by category: “This needs an autograph, this needs a letter, pay these bills,” she says.

“I think of this as a family business,” Justin says. “I play. Mom helps with travel, logistics, mail. Dad handles my investments and advises me on my schedule. And my sister, Kelly, who works in public relations, handles local media—I hope to give her a rash of business this year.”

Larry Leonard, Justin’s father, dressed much less meticulously than his wife and son in an old yellow windbreaker, is a microbiologist who recently retired from his biomedical testing company. “Justin would tag along with me and my friends when we played on Saturdays,” he recalls. “Then one day he said he wanted to quit soccer and play with us because we were having so much fun.”

“Oh, my, Larry and his group would needle that poor kid severely,” says Randy Smith, the pro at Royal Oaks and the only golf coach Leonard has ever had. “They just set about to agitate him. They would throw tees at him when he was hitting, start their carts as he was about to putt, cough during his backswing, whatever they could do.”

“At least we never fired a gun when he was hitting,” Larry says with a laugh. “I guess we did about everything else, but it was to have fun, not to train him to be mentally tough.”

“Now they’re all perfectly willing to take credit for me, though,” Justin needles back. This family, it’s clear, thrives on a steady stream of gentle teasing.

When Leonard was ten, he began to write essays about the exploits of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer—”After a few of those, my teacher told me, ‘No more golfers,’” he recalls with a laugh—and practiced his short game in the house. One hole, reputedly, went up the stairs, around the dining room table, and over the dog.

“I never knew about that,” Nancy says, feigning irritation.

“That’s because it didn’t happen when you were around, Mom,” Justin shoots back.

One paradox in Leonard’s nature is that he is known for his extreme emotional maturity, a wisdom beyond his years, and yet there is about him the air of the little kid, the semi-serious half-pint tagging along with Mom and Dad, still trying to beat the big guys. “I remember when he was twelve,” Nancy says, “and he played golf with the high school team. They liked playing with him, taking his fifty cents, but he would get so irritated when it was time to go home and they wouldn’t offer him a ride. No one wanted to be seen with a twelve-year-old.”

“One guy lived two blocks from us,” Justin chimes in, “and even he wouldn’t give me a ride.”

“Justin would call up, just steaming,” Nancy adds, “and say, ‘They’ve left me again!’”

“In some ways,” Smith says, “I think Justin is still partly motivated by a fear of embarrassment, which is another way of saying ‘pride.’ Most golfers give up a little when things are going bad, but not Justin. To him, the difference between seventy-four and seventy-five matters. Every stroke matters. No matter what happens, he’ll keep going after it with all he has.”

By the time Leonard was fifteen, he had grown into one of the top junior players in the country. “Justin had something you can’t teach,” Smith says. “He understood from the time he was little that scoring was the name of the game. Because the bigger kids could outdrive him by seventy-five yards or more, he had to chip and putt. The kid could solid putt, and from about sixty yards away from the hole in, he got to be the best I’ve ever seen.” After leading his Lake Highlands high school team to a state championship, Leonard headed to the University of Texas at Austin. Aside from his accomplishments on the golf course, he graduated with a business degree in four years. Before he’d won anything on tour, in 1996 he earned a spot on Cosmopolitan’s Most Eligible Bachelors list. When I mention this, though, Leonard looks embarrassed. “I don’t know what to say about that,” he says. “They had businessmen, Hollywood celebs, a baseball player …”

“So you were the token golfer?” I ask, innocently enough.

And that’s when I get it: the glare. His eyes narrow, freezing me in his sights. I am only joking, of course, and I suppose he is kidding as well. At least, I think he’s kidding, but the look is so intense, I’m unsure for the moment. It’s a baleful, inscrutable look that’s got some Ben Hogan in it, a defensive Texas edge mixed with irony.

In 1997 a different version of Leonard’s Royal Oaks malocchio was on display during the British Open at Royal Troon in Scotland. For Leonard, the British Open is the quintessence of tradition, an essay waiting to happen, but on the final day, he found himself trailing by the sizable margin of five strokes. On the first nine holes, though, he shot a brilliant 31 to get within a stroke of the lead. Back in Dallas, Randy Smith was watching on television as Leonard bogeyed the tenth hole. As Leonard was walking off the green, the camera zoomed in and caught his face. “I took one look at his eyes and turned to my wife and said, ‘It’s over,’” Smith remembers. “She said, ‘But he’s in trouble.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ It was all there in his expression. What I call the Shivas Irons look. Pure determination. Not upset, not complaining. No, ‘Oh, look what happened to me.’ Just a set jaw. I saw that look and said, ‘It’s over. Flat done.’”

Leonard proceeded to birdie the sixteenth and the seventeenth hole, and the Open was his. At the victory celebration, he made a smart and touching speech, including an ad-libbed joke that invited the engraver of the quickly delivered trophy to open a dry-cleaning operation in Dallas. “It hasn’t hit me yet,” he said, talking about the magnitude of the moment, “so if it hits me during this speech, I’ll go ahead and apologize.” Moments later he said, “I’m here alone this week, just myself and my caddie, Bob Riefke,” then he paused. “Just a moment, please,” he said, his voice cracking. “I think it just hit me.” He was thinking, he told reporters later, of his parents, his grandmother, his sister, Randy Smith, and all his friends at Royal Oaks.

The next year, Leonard won the Players Championship, generally considered the most prestigious title after the four major championships, again coming from five strokes behind on the final day. He showed off his fortitude and his smarts on the final hole, when he played conservatively to avoid the water hazards, while his closest challenger splashed two balls into the drink on the next-to-last hole.

Then in 1999, at the end of a winless year, came the Ryder Cup. Touring pros often have prodigious powers of recall, the ability to tick off shot-by-shot recapitulations of rounds from years ago, but as Leonard recounts the Ryder Cup, his eyes get an especially faraway look that says these memories are about more than tee shots and putts.

After two days of play at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, the heavily favored U.S. team was trailing the European team badly and getting ripped by the media to boot. Leonard had not won any of his matches and was singled out for criticism by TV commentator Johnny Miller, whose blunt statements often border on cruelty. When team captain Ben Crenshaw said he was playing a “hunch” by using Leonard in a match on Saturday, Miller responded, “My hunch is that Leonard needs to go home and watch on TV.”

On the night before the last day’s singles matches, Crenshaw organized a Lone Star-style pep rally, hoping to trigger a comeback. George W. Bush read William Travis’ letter from the Alamo. Players received videotaped messages from the cheerleaders of their respective colleges. Davis Love’s wife, Robin, made an impassioned speech, concluding with the most memorable of legendary Austin golf teacher Harvey Penick’s tips: “Take dead aim.”

Galvanized by the Remember the Alamo spirit, the U.S. team roared back, sweeping the first six of the twelve matches. Leonard was in a position to win back the cup if he tied his match with Master’s champion José María Olazábal of Spain. But there was a problem: At the twelfth hole Leonard was down four, with only seven to play.

“I knew he still had a chance,” Smith says. “Remember, he came from five strokes back on the last day to win the British, five strokes back on the last day to win the Players.” Still, this was the Ryder Cup, the most pressure-packed event in golf. No prize money is at stake, but playing for your country creates a tension that makes even the most seasoned of veterans quake like cottonwoods in the wind. “You’ve played majors, been in position to win majors, but you’ve never experienced anything like this,” Tom Watson told his team when he was the Ryder Cup captain in 1993. “This is the only event in the world that will make your legs shake.”

On the tenth hole, Davis Love came out to encourage Leonard. Somehow the sight of his friend brought back the emotions of the night before, which mixed with the frustration he felt and the burning shame of Miller’s comments. Tears came to Leonard’s eyes. “You really want to do well for your teammates, your family, your country. It’s not hard to get emotional about those things, and then when I saw Davis …” he says, his voice trailing off. Leonard the kid was wounded; Leonard the pro was tested to the extreme.

Leonard won the twelfth hole when Olazábal hooked his tee shot into the woods, and the thirteenth went the same way. “I was still two down,” he says, “but suddenly I felt like I had all the momentum.” He birdied fourteen to cut the margin to one, then birdied the fifteenth with a curving 35-foot putt to draw even. “That was as excited as I’ve ever been on a golf course,” he says, grinning.

After the players tied the next hole, Leonard faced a difficult and delicate 45-foot putt on the seventeenth hole. If he made it, and the Spaniard missed, the Ryder Cup was going home with the Americans. The white ball rolled toward the distant hole, seemingly traveling too fast, but it struck the cup dead center and went down, as if swallowed by a black hole. The U.S. team went crazy in a controversial jubilation that set off a long-running debate about the etiquette of demonstration in golf. After the green had been cleared of leaping Americans, Olazábal missed his putt. Leonard had sealed the victory.

“That putt defies imagination,” Crenshaw says, a note of reverence and awe in his voice. “Something must have wanted that ball to go in the cup.”

“I went from goat to hero, or whatever,” Leonard says, savoring the redemption. “All of a sudden that was the most excited I’ve ever been on a golf course.” Then his eyes turn steely. “Obviously,” he says, “I felt like justice was served.”

Just then, everyone at the table falls quiet for a moment. “You know, I really enjoyed hearing that,” Nancy says to her son.

“Hearing what?” Justin asks.

“About all you went through, all the emotions.”

“Oh, Mom,” he groans, playing the kid again.

Golf, it is often said, is a funny game. No other sport has quite the fleeting quality, the tendency for mastery to turn to misery, and in the months since his Ryder Cup glory, Leonard suffered through one of his worst stretches as a pro. Although he is still ranked among the world’s top twenty players, at the end of May he had finished in the top ten only once.

Even so, betting against him now would be a mistake; it would be falling for the Johnny Miller fallacy that what appears to be down is down and out. “A young pro from the old school,” as one newspaper called him, might just whip out his hickory-shafted mashie niblick this month in Scotland and drag the new millennium back into the old for a brief and glorious moment. Even if other players are intimidated by Tiger Woods or by the magnitude of major championship moments, Leonard doesn’t seem to be. After all, he’s always felt like David against Goliath.

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