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.
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.