Positive attitude helping Leonard in tough time

By Jason SobelOctober 9, 2012, 1:54 pm

There is a familiar face among the has-beens and never-weres bouncing along the PGA Tour monetary bubble. Once one of the game’s most complete players, Justin Leonard is now desperately clinging to life as a fully exempt Tour member, trying to reclaim those privileges for another year.

Hardly an hour of recent Ryder Cup coverage passed without video of Leonard's historic putt from the 1999 edition of the event. You know the one. A 45-footer on the 17th hole which led to abject mayhem and – after the dust had settled – a victory for the American side.

There is a tangible contrast between the man who raised his arms triumphantly that day in Brookline and the one who caught bits and pieces of the competition this year, eventually sitting down for the final 45 minutes. He reports that the U.S. loss was “hard to watch” because of his close friendship with captain Davis Love III and so many players on the team.

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While that contrast perseveres, there remains a parallel between the American struggles and those of Leonard in his own game.

Four years ago, he appeared very much still in the prime of his career, winning once and finishing 10th on the final money list. The next season saw a decline, but hardly a serious one, as he finished 30th in money. Then two years ago, he came in 87th and last year – thanks to a solo second-place finish at the season-ending Children’s Miracle Network Classic – he made a huge leap to finish 91st.

With three events remaining on this year’s schedule, he finds himself in the same place, mired in the 131st position on the money list. And yet, ask Leonard and he maintains that he’s in a much different place than ever before.

“I’m not as stressed out as some people might think or some other people might be,” he contends. “I’m still in a good position. I’ve seen some signs that I’m on the right track.”

The fact that Leonard isn’t feeling the pressure of his situation speaks volumes about his mentality toward it, which he insists hasn’t formed based on his backup plan. As the ninth-ranked player on the career money list, he will be able to use exemptions for either being in the top-25 or top-50 – in effect, two get-out-of-jail-free cards if he doesn’t finish in the top 125 once again. Of course, such cards are often best played close to the vest, so Leonard is hoping to save them for another year – or never have to use them at all.

While drifting from a perennial top-10 player to one fighting for his card would leave most players sulking in their courtesy cars, Leonard actually enjoys the perspective that it’s given him.

“I’ve had a long career,” he says. “I’ve seen the ups and downs. The periods like this help me appreciate when I am playing well. I think that for a while earlier in my career, I took a few things for granted. I can honestly say that’s not true anymore. I’m thankful to be out here and have the chance that I’ve gotten. I’m certainly not satisfied with my game and where I am, but I’m enthusiastic about it because I feel like I’ve turned a corner. As much as I would have loved for this year to be different, I think there are some real things I can grab onto to help me make a few changes.”

Those changes have helped define a new attitude toward the game and his current predicament.

“I know that five or 10 years ago, I would not have wanted to be around myself the last few months knowing how seriously I take everything,” he adds. “Golf has always been a focal point, but my priorities have changed with my faith and my marriage and my kids. It’s certainly something I strive to be excellent at, but now I’m better suited to handle the situation.

“Sure, I’d love to come out and play great these next few weeks and not have to take the exemption, but if I have to take the exemption, it’s no big deal.”

It’s a refreshing attitude for a player whose game has fallen on such hard times. Leonard owns just three top-25 results in 23 starts so far this season. What’s gone wrong? Well, consider this: He ranks outside the top-100 in driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation, sand save percentage, putting average, total eagles, total birdies, par-3 birdie percentage, par-4 birdie percentage, par-5 birdie percentage and scoring average.

As Leonard is quick to point out, though, things have been heading in the right direction. In his last three starts, he finished T-5 at the Reno-Tahoe Open, T-19 at the Wyndham Championship and after a hot start last week in Las Vegas, a T-33 at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

While he’s obviously striking the ball and rolling it better, Leonard maintains that his approach has been the biggest key to unlocking some recent success.

“I’m not stressing about rounds or shots; I’m just coming out with a little more of a relaxed attitude,” he says. “It’s easy to say it. To actually apply it has been difficult, but it’s something that I’m getting the hang of. I can see that kind of attitude really helping in my game and my approach each week and each day.”

If it continues helping, don’t be surprised to see Leonard sneak inside the top 125 once again this year. That’s not the end goal, though. His name has been broached as a possibility for the next Ryder Cup captain, but Leonard thinks he can return to that stage as a player, competing alongside the country’s best golfers two years from now.

He certainly has the right attitude to get back there.

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

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After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.

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Landry stays hot, leads desert shootout at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 12:35 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Andrew Landry topped the crowded CareerBuilder Challenge leaderboard after another low-scoring day in the sunny Coachella Valley.

Landry shot a 7-under 65 on Thursday on PGA West's Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course to reach 16 under. He opened with a 63 on Thursday at La Quinta Country Club.

''Wind was down again,'' Landry said. ''It's like a dome out here.''

Jon Rahm, the first-round leader after a 62 at La Quinta, was a stroke back. He had two early bogeys in a 67 on the Nicklaus layout.

''It's tough to come back because I feel like I expected myself to go to the range and keep just flushing everything like I did yesterday,'' Rahm said. ''Everything was just a little bit off.''

Jason Kokrak was 14 under after a 67 at Nicklaus. Two-time major champion Zach Johnson was 13 under along with Michael Kim and Martin Piller. Johnson had a 64 at Nicklaus.

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Landry, Rahm, Kokrak and Johnson will finish the rotation Saturday at PGA West's Stadium Course, also the site of the final round.

''You need to hit it a lot more accurate off the tee because being in the fairway is a lot more important,'' Rahm said about the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course, a layout the former Arizona State player likened to the Dye-designed Karsten course on the school's campus. ''With the small greens, you have water in play. You need to be more precise. Clearly the hardest golf course.''

Landry pointed to the Saturday forecast.

''I think the wind's supposed to be up like 10 to 20 mph or something, so I know that golf course can get a little mean,'' Landry said. ''Especially, those last three or four holes.''

The 30-year-old former Arkansas player had five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine. After winning his second Web.com Tour title last year, he had two top-10 finishes in October and November at the start the PGA Tour season.

''We're in a good spot right now,'' Landry said. ''I played two good rounds of golf, bogey-free both times, and it's just nice to be able to hit a lot of good quality shots and get rewarded when you're making good putts.''

Rahm had four birdies and the two bogeys on his first six holes. He short-sided himself in the left bunker on the par-3 12th for his first bogey of the week and three-putted the par-4 14th – pulling a 3-footer and loudly asking ''What?'' – to drop another stroke.

''A couple of those bad swings cost me,'' Rahm said.

The top-ranked player in the field at No. 3 in the world, Rahm made his first par of the day on the par-4 16th and followed with five more before birdieing the par-5 fourth. The 23-year-old Spaniard also birdied the par-5 seventh and par-3 eighth.

''I had close birdie putts over the last four holes and made two of them, so I think that kind of clicked,'' said Rahm, set to defend his title next week at Torrey Pines.

He has played the par 5s in 9 under with an eagle and seven birdies.

Johnson has taken a relaxed approach to the week, cutting his practice to two nine-hole rounds on the Stadium Course.

''I'm not saying that's why I'm playing well, but I took it really chill and the golf courses haven't changed,'' Johnson said. ''La Quinta's still really pure, right out in front of you, as is the Nicklaus.''

Playing partner Phil Mickelson followed his opening 70 at La Quinta with a 68 at Nicklaus to get to 6 under. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer is playing his first tournament of since late October.

''The scores obviously aren't what I want, but it's pretty close and I feel good about my game,'' Mickelson said. ''I feel like this is a great place to start the year and build a foundation for my game. It's easy to identify the strengths and weaknesses. My iron play has been poor relative to the standards that I have. My driving has been above average.''

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on a sponsor exemption, had a 70 at Nicklaus to match Mickelson at 6 under. The Southern California recruit is playing his first PGA Tour event. He tied for 65th in the Australian Open in November in his first start in a professional tournament.