Leonard returns to old form, shares lead at Disney
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It seems like Justin Leonard can’t catch a break in 2011.
Even shooting his low round of the year, a 9-under 63 on Disney’s Palm Course that put him in a share of the lead, didn’t come without a price.
After the round, Leonard, who entered the week No. 144 on the money list, was asked about his plans for next year, should he not crack the top 125 at week’s end.
“I did call the Tour a couple months ago and asked about my status,” Leonard said. “I’m exempt for next year, so I’m not playing with that kind of pressure.”
Exempt under what category?
“I don’t know how, I just am.”
The room full of reporters looked on with puzzled expressions.
“I gave the same look to the telephone,” Leonard laughed. “‘How is this guy still exempt?’ I didn’t question them very hard. I just said, ‘OK, if you say so.’
“I know I would probably be a whole lot more stressed this week if I hadn’t (had the exemption).”
Well, he got a chance to feel that stress for about two hours Friday, as PGA Tour officials scrambled to find out exactly how Leonard was exempt. Leonard stood in the media center for about 20 minutes discussing his status with reporters and officials. He left without knowing where he stood, worried about finishing high enough this week to avoid using one of his two available Career Money List exemptions (Leonard is No. 10 on the list).
Eventually the PGA Tour offered the following explanation: Leonard won the 1997 Open Championship, earning him an exemption through 2007. With each ensuing win inside that window – there have been five – that exemption is extended another year.
In the end, Leonard will be fully exempt through next year and will take with him a series of improved putting habits that were on full display Friday. Leonard had 26 putts Friday and only 12 on the back nine (he also holed out for eagle from 110 yards at No. 14).
Ten days ago, he met with Dave Stockton Jr. for a two-hour lesson in San Diego to try to fix a balky putter that has plauged him for the duration of one of his worst PGA Tour seasons.
“The things we talked about really resonated with me,” Leonard said. “Getting back to being more natural and getting my hands a little more forward and really speeding up my routine. It’s been great because I’m kind of getting out of my own way a little bit.”
After playing the front nine in 3 under, Leonard blitzed the Palm’s back nine for four birdies and an eagle, playing the final five holes in 5 under. It was the round of 2011, a year that saw him record zero top 10s. His best finish was a T-13 at the Bob Hope Classic.
Leonard’s name came up last week as one of the few players to earn a PGA Tour card without going to Q-School when Bud Cauley accomplished the feat at the McGladrey Classic. Although Leonard has fallen to new lows on the money list this year, he remains confident that his resume will not stop at 12 PGA Tour victories.
“Coming out of college, I mean, all I had was the game of golf and I lived and died with every round and every shot. Fortunately there were more good ones than bad ones.
“Eighteen years later I’ve got a couple things going on in my life that are more important than this game,” he said. “Doesn’t mean my desire is any less than it was, but the way I view the game and the way that I prioritize the game has gone down.
“But do I have the desire to get back to where I once was? Absolutely I do. I want my kids to see me at my best and they haven’t. But I feel pretty good that they will.”