Tough Texan

By Rich LernerMay 13, 2009, 4:00 pm
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SAN ANTONIO ' This week Justin Leonard will try to become the first to ever win the Valero Texas Open, which dates back to 1922, four times (Arnold Palmer won three). Born and raised in Dallas, Leonard starred at the University of Texas. He won a U.S. Amateur, a British Open and a Players early in his career. He made one of the most famous putts in golf history, the cross-country strike that sent the Americans racing onto the green at Brookline in the 1999 Ryder Cup. In the last two years he emerged from a slump and again played an integral role on a winning Ryder Cup team, last year at Valhalla. Rich Lerner caught up with the tough Texan on Wednesday at La Cantera:
Rich: Why have you had so much success here at the Valero Texas Open?
Justin: I think its the golf course. And its also a very relaxed atmosphere. Its not too far from home, which is nice. Its a golf course where the longest player really doesnt have an advantage. It can be windy. You have to control where your ball ends up and those are things that I tend to do pretty well.
Justin Leonard
Justin Leonard may be most remembered for this putt in the 1999 Ryder Cup. (Getty Images)
Rich: Whats your most memorable moment in golf?
Justin: Somewhere between the '99 Ryder Cup and the '08 Ryder Cup, you know making the comeback and being a part of that afternoon Sunday in Boston was a feeling I dont think Ill ever feel again in the game. But the whole week-long experience last fall when I hadnt played in nine years and having a family and having a faith, I enjoyed the week more as a whole and to be able to win the Cup back after it had been nine years was something very special.
Rich: Interesting, you dont mention of the Open Championship at Royal Troon.
Justin: I have a hard time remembering that long ago (laughs).
Rich: Youre not that old.
Justin: I mean that was very personal and totally an individual achievement outside of my very small circle. At the Ryder Cup you get to celebrate with peers, friends and family. Its a bigger collection of people trying to accomplish the same goal. Being able to share that with some great friends on Tour, wives and captains makes those moments seem a little bigger than the individual achievements.
Rich: It came relatively easy to you as a young pro with the Open Championship and a Players Championship. What was crossroads moment where you lost your way psychologically, spiritually and emotionally?
Justin: I struggled quite a bit with my game in 2006. I started out 07 missing five cuts in a row and I felt really lost. Interesting, though, through that whole process my life off the golf course really flourished. My family, my relationship with my wife, my faith because going through all of that gave me even more perspective in terms of whats really important to me. Was I going to let my career dictate my attitude away from the golf course? So I was really able to separate the two. Now, there were some pretty disappointing Friday nights. But I learned so much from that experience. And then I made some changes like going back to Randy Smith, whom I grew up working with and with whom Id shared a lot success and wonderful memories from early in my career. Getting a fresh perspective from the sports psychologist Dick Coop helped as did bringing Brian Smith on as a caddie, as well as a good attitude that maybe had been missing. That and a lot of hard work, combined with the perspective Id gained through my struggles, all helped me get back. I won here in San Antonio in the fall of 07 and then came out and played very well in 08. That got me thinking about playing on a Ryder Cup team. So while its never fun to go through those tough periods I realize its necessary sometimes as humans, as fathers and husbands in order to grow as individuals and learn more about ourselves.
Rich: How often did you hear, seven or eight years ago. that you needed to get longer in order to compete with all the bombers that were proliferating on Tour?
Justin: Not only did I hear that but I was telling myself those things ' technically I need to get better, I need to hit the ball farther and higher. I got away from doing the things that I had learned and that I had had success with early on. After struggling in 06, I looked at guys like David Toms and Jim Furyk and they became inspirations for me because theyre not the longest hitters. Theyre obviously great competitors and great putters. They play their game. When they play their game it works on any golf course. Sure on some courses they may be at a slight disadvantage because of their lack of distance, but they stay with their games. So I really looked at those two guys as a map for me. Work on my weaknesses, certainly, but play my game.
Rich: When youre in sync, what aspect of the game do you perform better than most?
Justin: Grit. And thats such an intangible. I feel like when Im on my game I can compete with the best players in the world, maybe not for weeks or months at a time, but when my game is on I feel like I have a chance to win the golf tournament. I think one thing you really cant calculate is determination that I learned competing in Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups.
Rich: What about the tangible parts of your game?
Justin: I give myself a lot of opportunities and stay out of trouble. I really try to wear a golf course down. Im not going to overpower it but if I can keep giving myself opportunities without a lot of stress during the round, I feel like by the end of the day Im going to get what I need to out of it.
Rich: I go back to Troon (site of the 1997 Open Championship) and think its hard to roll the ball much better than you did there.
Justin: When I have confidence putting the ball I tend to make a few putts. I enjoy that part of the game very much.
Rich: What are your goals for 2009?
Justin: Early in my career I set a lot of results-oriented goals, like getting in contention and winning a major. This year Id like to make the Presidents Cup team just because, as I said, its a great week to spend with friends and their wives and its a great atmosphere. I want to be ready to play every week and right now Im in the middle of a four-week stretch. That incorporates a lot like managing my practice time, making sure I stay fresh and then beyond that I want to give myself chances to win golf tournaments.
Rich: I remember thinking when you won at Troon that we were watching the next Gary Player. Maybe it was the stature combined with the grip. But the technology explosion put such an emphasis on distance.
Justin: Thats too lofty for me. Ive certainly been helped by technology. I do think it would be fun to play a tournament with persimmon woods and blade irons and the old golf ball.
Rich: You played persimmon?
Justin: I did. I played persimmon until 1997. It was an old Cleveland Classic. Id changed the insert on it.
Rich: You went to the University of Texas but you dont shout about it.
Justin: Im kind of low-key about most things. Im certainly not DiMarco-ish (editor's note: Chris DiMarco attended the University of Florida) when it comes to supporting a school. But I tune in as much as I can. I get a lot of support down here this week and thats fun. Its funny, when I first came on Tour people would say, Hey Justin, hook em, as in hook em Horns. For a while that bothered me because I kept thinking, Why are you telling me to hook it out here on the golf course! After a couple years I got over it.
Rich: Are you pure Texas ' country music and a pickup truck?
Justin: No, Ive never owned a pickup truck but I do own a great pair of cowboy boots that I love to wear. Im not really into country music either. Growing up in Dallas Im kind of citified Texan, if you will.
Rich: What kind of music do you like?
Justin: Im still into some of my college music, 90s alternative. Im into some newer bands too. Id love to go see the Foo Fighters. Ive never seen them live. Right out of school I saw Smashing Pumpkins at a very small venue. That was great. I really enjoyed Elliot Smith, though he was a pretty dark artist and his music kind of portrayed that. I was flipping through some our downloaded music a couple nights ago and came across Tragically Hip. So I like bands that I picked up in college or right out of college and still go back to today. I wish more artists would make music like that today.
Rich: I know Texans are particular about their barbecue. You have a favorite?
Justin: Salt Lick is very good. County Line is very good. But honestly, the best brisket comes out of my moms kitchen. Shed put together a barbecue and Id invite guys over during the Byron (Nelson Championship) and I think she had to make a few copies of her recipe for my buddies. Its pretty incredible.
Rich: If you werent playing golf what would you love to do?
Justin: I thought about majoring in architecture, but by the end of four years I would have been about a 12 handicap. I stayed in the Business school. But Ive always had an interest in architecture and theres a creative process there that intrigues me.
Rich: Based on the way you play golf ' strategic, precise ' you probably would have done well in architecture.
Justin: Yeah, I enjoy that process.
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