They are soon going to be extinct, these PGA Tour players who competed with persimmon. It’s not a prospect that pleases Justin Leonard, though he long ago accepted the fact that wood was then and metal is now.
“It’s certainly changed the game quite a bit,” said Leonard, whose name is often bandied about – along with Scott Verplank’s – as a guy who might have been actually hurt by modern technology. The rationale is that Leonard never hit the ball a long way, but he could work it beautifully in both directions – a true shotmaker – and today’s equipment doesn’t so much afford that luxury; instead, it rewards pure power.
But Leonard suggests that his friend, Davis Love III, was largely hurt by technology, maybe more than anyone. Leonard’s point: “Davis, and probably Greg Norman, were the two best drivers of the golf ball when I got out here, and they had a huge advantage over everybody. With all the equipment and everything, a guy like Davis or Norman wouldn’t have that advantage because there are so many guys that can hit it that far.”
True enough. Ask PGA Tour observers who have been around since the 1980s and it’s almost unanimous: No one could hit the persimmon as high, far and straight as Love.
“I think equipment kind of diminished his competitive advantage,” said Leonard, 41.
Not that Leonard feels painted into a corner. He can still compete on the courses where it’s firm and there’s a need to shape shots. And besides, back then, “I was 30 yards behind Davis and I’m still 25, 30 yards behind him.”
Leonard belongs to that fraternity of competitors who know they can’t miss fairways and must manage a golf course, not overpower it. “You look at a guy like Zach (Johnson) and the way he’s played, or Jim Furyk, the way he’s played so well over the years. It can still be done. It’s not easy and it’s not always sexy, but it can be pretty effective.”
Leonard, whose 12 Tour victories include the 1997 Open Championship, ranked 148th in driving distance on Tour last year at 277.5 yards. He doesn’t think his results have suffered by trying to chase length. He said he accepted what he was years ago. What hurt him, though, “was a patch of still trying to work the ball so much, especially with the driver.” Leonard finally decided enough was enough.
“(That’s) working against how the clubs are designed. They’re designed to go straight. Balls are designed to go straight. They’re not really designed to curve as much. So I’ve gone to hitting more of a straight ball, maybe even cutting it a little bit.”
He talks of a renewed commitment and a better feel for his swing these days, and it’s hard to say that the math doesn’t support him. In his last 13 PGA Tour rounds, dating to the finale at the McGladrey Classic in November, Leonard has shot 10 rounds in the 60s and none worse than 70.