Leonard has come full circle on PGA Tour

By Jason SobelMarch 16, 2013, 10:12 pm

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The man who walked off the Innisbrook Copperhead course after a third-round 67 that left him tied for the Tampa Bay Championship lead – five years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, 14 years removed from his Ryder Cup putt heard 'round the world and 16 years removed from his lone major championship – could be considered a superstar-turned-journeyman, though superstar is probably too brazen a superlative and journeyman too fallacious an insult.

His career is a case study in anomaly. Once on par with some of the game’s most elite players, he failed to continue on that path like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but hardly lost his game like David Duval. Instead, he has meandered down the path of the moderate. After collecting a dozen titles in just over a dozen years to start his career, he has now played 122 consecutive events without reaching the winner's circle.

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And so after answering questions about specific shots throughout the day and how the course played and what it feels like to be in contention again, the 54-hole co-leader was asked one final question: What is the biggest difference between Justin Leonard when he won the 1997 Open Championship and Justin Leonard today?

Leonard thought for a second, then tugged on one of his graying sideburns and announced, “See that right there?” as signs of age trickled from beneath his cap and laughter emanated around him.

The truth is, there are plenty of differences between Leonard at age 25 and now at age 40.

“I vacillate between feeling pretty old and not feeling very old,” he explained. “When [fellow PGA Tour player] Brian Harman says, ‘Oh, I enjoyed playing in your AJGA tournament three years ago’ or something, you know, then I feel a little old and my back hurts a little bit. But when I get out there between the ropes and I don't have some 25-year-old giving me grief, I feel pretty good.”

Though the differences are numerous and far outweigh the similarities, that doesn’t mean getting back into contention is a foreign concept. Rounds of 71-69-67 have him seeking his first top-10 finish since last August, a period that spans 13 starts.

Leonard maintains, though, that playing with a tournament on the line is like that old riding-a-bicycle cliché. Once you’ve done it, you never forget how.

“Today I felt very comfortable out there,” he said. “I know it's just Saturday, but I also knew that I was up near the lead, and you know, it was a very familiar feeling. It's been awhile, but there weren't any surprises out there today.”

His fellow contenders likewise aren’t surprised to see his name amongst theirs entering the final round.

“I know he hasn’t played as well as he would have liked the last few years,” said Jim Furyk, who considers Leonard a close friend. “It’s probably been two or three years since he’s been real happy about his game. I think this is a perfect golf course for him. He has a lot of shots; he’s very much in control of his golf ball and his emotions. That’s what it takes to play this course well.

“I admire him. I think he’s a good person and I admire the way he goes about his business.”

All of which leads back to that final question after his round, the one about the biggest difference between Leonard then as opposed to now. After tugging on his gray hairs and making a quick joke, he spoke from the heart about how his priorities have changed.

“I can't even quantify the difference,” he said. “I was pretty singularly focused back then. It was golf and that was about it.

“Now golf is, depending on what day you ask me, it's anywhere from fourth to sixth on my list. You know, it defined me back then, and that was OK because I was playing great. Fortunately, it doesn't define me anymore. I've got a wonderful marriage and four great kids and I've got my faith that is constantly evolving and growing. Those are the things that are important to me.

“Golf is still very important and it's something that I love to do, but it doesn't define me the way that it did then.”

In some circles, Leonard's deference toward other priorities will be viewed not only as an explanation for his struggles, but a condemnation of what takes precedence in his life. By getting into contention – and by possibly winning this tournament on Sunday afternoon – he will quash any such thoughts.

Clearly he is a different player – and yes, a different person – from the one who won a major 16 years ago and clinched the Ryder Cup 14 years ago, and even the one who last claimed a title five years ago. Justin Leonard is just fine with the path he has chosen.

It just may lead him back to the winner’s circle again.

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After Further Review: Tiger's return comes at perfect time

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 2:19 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the current state of golf as Tiger Woods returns to competition ...

Less than four days before Tiger Woods returns to official competitive golf for the first time in a year, Jon Rahm, the new second-ranked player in the world, won on the PGA Tour and Rory McIlroy made an impressive 2018 debut on the European Tour (T-3).

Not since Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus crossed paths at the 1960 U.S. Open has there been so many superstars all poised for big seasons, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson having already won this year and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas both coming off stellar seasons.

It’s a good time for golf. - Rex Hoggard

On Tommy Fleetwood's continued success ...

There have been scores of talented European players whose skills didn’t translate to the PGA Tour … and maybe, in a few years, Tommy Fleetwood will prove to be no different.

He sure looks like the real deal, though.  

His title defense in Abu Dhabi – on the strength of a back-nine 30 in windy conditions – was his third title in the past 12 months and 11th top-10 overall. A few of those have come in majors and World Golf Championship events, too, which led the reigning Race to Dubai champion to accept PGA Tour membership for this season.

Beginning at Riviera, he plans to play exclusively in the States through May, then reassess for the rest of the year. Hope he sticks, because he’s a fun personality with tons of game. - Ryan Lavner

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Rahm passes Spieth to become world No. 2

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:25 am

With his win Sunday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jon Rahm picked up his second PGA Tour victory and moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.

He picked up one more No. 2, too.

The 23-year-old Spaniard passed Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Dustin Johnson.

In 19 months, since June 2016, Rahm has rocketed from No. 776 in the world to No. 2, thanks in part to his low divisor, his number of events played.

Asked after his playoff victory over Andrew Landry to discuss his rapid ascent up the world rankings, Rahm was almost at a loss.

“It's hard to believe to be honest, passing Jordan Spieth,” he said. “That's a three-time major champion. I only have two wins. He's got 10-plus, right? It's again – I've said it many times – I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now.”

Rahm may only have two PGA Tour titles, but this is his fourth worldwide win in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. He also took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship on his way to claiming the European Tour’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Award.

Dating back to the start of last season on the PGA Tour, Rahm has racked up 12 top-10s, three runner-ups, and two wins.

He will head to Torrey Pines next week ready to defend for the first time.

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Brady compares self to Woods after winning AFC title

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 1:05 am

Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are two of the all-time greats in their respective sports ... a fact that is not lost on the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Fresh off leading the New England Patriots to a AFC Championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady was asked about winning the game despite a cut on his throwing hand - which made national news heading into the matchup.

His response invoked the name of a certain 14-time major winner, something that would be tough to pull off, if not for the fact that he is, you know, Tom Brady.

“I think it's kind of arrogant to say it bothered me when we had a pretty good game, so I wouldn't say that," the 40-year-old told reporters after the game. "It's like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game’ and he won the tournament."

Tiger Woods winning with his "C game" may be a distant memory for golf fans, but no matter what game he brings, his next chance to win comes next week at Torrey Pines during his official comeback to the PGA Tour.

Brady has a shot at his sixth Super Bowl title in two weeks. The Patriots would probably benefit from him bringing a little better than his "C game" as well.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

Jon Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means: This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Rahm missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18 of the day, his birdie bid found the cup. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest: A two-time Web.com winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day: Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Web.com Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day: "One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry