Justin Leonard picked an appropriate weekend to put together his first victory since overhauling his swing.
He has been patiently refining his game through periods of inconsistency this year, but perseverance paid off for Leonard Sept. 30 at the Texas Open, the site of his last victory.
By shooting an 18-under 266, Leonard looked to be on his way to regaining the form that earned him two Ryder Cup team berths in the late 1990s. As the player who provided the mass-hysteria-inducing putt at the 1999 match, Leonard was conspicuously absent from the 2001 U.S. squad, which was scheduled to be in England the same weekend as the Texas Open.
But with the Ryder Cup postponed to 2002 because of safety concerns in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, Leonard again was at the center of attention – though his final-round endeavors were not broadcast on television. ESPN2 instead aired a 15-inning baseball game between the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles. The game was suspended because of rain with the score tied at 1, but by then it had run long enough to go right through the finish of Leonard’s victory.
The former University of Texas All-American successfully defended his title with a final-round, 2-under-par 69 at LaCantera Golf Club. PGA Tour rookies Matt Kuchar and J.J. Henry tied for second, two strokes back. The victory was Leonard’s first since last year’s Texas Open, 31 starts ago, and his first since deciding he had to make swing changes.
He’s the first repeat winner of the tournament since Arnold Palmer won three in a row from 1960-62.
“This is why I made those changes – so I could come out and shoot 18 under,” he said afterward. “This year I’ve made a lot of changes. I’ve felt better each month and each week.
“I was really looking forward to this fall. I said last week I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t win a tournament.”
There was nothing disappointing about Leonard’s performance at LaCantera. Opening with 65 to trail Marco Dawson by one, the Dallas native followed with 64 to lead by three after the second round, and he never gave up his position during the closing two rounds.
After making 16 birdies in the first two rounds – 10 on Friday alone – he managed only seven over the final 36 holes. On Sunday he was 2 under for the day after five holes before making eight consecutive pars. He birdied the par-5 14th, but gave the stroke back two holes later.
Henry got to 16 under and within two of Leonard on the par-3 13th with a bending 15-footer. Leonard, who could see the shot from the elevated tee, followed with a par.
The two matched birdies on the next hole before Leonard got the breathing room he needed on the 15th.
Henry ran a 50-foot putt past the hole and left his par attempt on the lip for a bogey 5. Leonard missed the green on his approach, but his short chip rolled within a foot for par and a three-shot lead.
Leonard bogeyed 16, but Henry missed his final chance to make it close when he missed a short putt on the 18th.
While on the 18th green, with victory cheers from his large gallery washing over him, Leonard shed tears that had been building up since the attacks.
“I wanted to say something about the patriotism I’ve seen this week and I just got choked up,” he recounted later.
– From staff and wire reports