Leonard slowing down, but still contending

By Will GrayNovember 12, 2015, 11:44 pm

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – He can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but sometime this spring Justin Leonard started to fall out of love with golf.

He was mired in a slump, one that would ultimately produce nine straight missed cuts. The hours of practice, the time spent on the range – the routine that helped him win 12 times, including a major – started to feel too much like work.

The more he tried to grind it out, the less satisfaction he received.

So at age 43, seven years removed from his last win, Leonard started to come to grips with his own golfing mortality.

It’s a curious crossroad for players as they age toward the Champions Tour, instilled with that same strong desire to compete but sometimes betrayed by fading ability. For Leonard, the biggest agent of change was a shift in priorities.

“I’ve just been out here 21 or 22 years, and my kids are growing up,” Leonard said after an opening 65 at the OHL Classic at Maykoba. “I get to do a lot of things but I miss a lot of things, too.”

A lifelong Texan, Leonard sat down last year with his wife and four kids and discussed relocating. The subsequent decision didn’t send the Leonards to a golfing bastion in warm weather, but instead to ski country in Aspen, Colo., where they have been since August.

OHL Classic at Mayakoba: Articles, photos and videos

The move signaled the fact that Leonard is both ready and willing to start paring down his competitive schedule.

“So many decisions I’ve made over the last 25 years have been about golf,” he said. “So when we started talking about moving, I just said, ‘Let’s just take golf out of it. Where are we going to be the happiest and most excited when we get on an airplane to go home?’”

After missing the FedEx Cup Playoffs, Leonard cashed in the second of his two, one-time career earnings exemptions. He is making his second start of the season this week in Mexico, where he finished T-6 in 2013 and now shares the early lead, but he plans to play only 12 events this season.

Leonard hopes to follow the late-career model set by Steve Stricker, and said he began talking to Stricker a year ago about how best to shape his schedule and how to make the most of his sporadic playing opportunities.

“I want to just play the tournaments that I’m excited to go play, and see what I can do,” he said. “It just feels right to me to slow down and spend more time at home, spend more time with my wife and my kids.”

Leonard’s plight is one that Jerry Kelly knows quite well. At age 48, Kelly has spent the last several years trying to balance time at home with his wife and son along with a full playing schedule on the PGA Tour.

“It’s tough. You miss an awful lot of stuff that you don’t want to miss. It makes you feel like a bad dad,” Kelly said. “It takes a support system, because it’s difficult. It doesn’t seem like much for the general public to look at it and go, ‘Oh yeah real tough, he’s playing golf for a living.’ But we are gone an awful lot, and we miss an awful lot. That pulls on the heartstrings.”

Nearly two years removed from his last top-10 finish, Leonard turned back the clock with his bogey-free opener at El Camaleon, finding his comfort zone on a course that rewards both accuracy off the tee and deft touch around the greens.

The youth movement that has taken the sport by storm in recent months is nothing new to Leonard. Following a decorated amateur career, Leonard won on the PGA Tour at age 24 and captured the 1997 Open Championship just after turning 25.

Now, though, the shoe is on the other foot: Leonard is the grizzled veteran, hoping to recapture his old form against an eager crop of rising stars.

“First I was five years older than those guys, then I was 10 or 15, and now it’s, yeah, these guys are half my age,” he said. “I think I just felt another gray hair pop in.”

Leonard is still mulling the prospect of a Champions Tour career down the line, but said he could just as easily retire well before turning 50. Amassing more than $33 million in on-course earnings across two decades can provide that sort of flexibility.

For now, though, he has a tournament to play on a course that fits his style. It’s an opportunity he plans to relish, since he’s not sure when – or if – he’ll have another shot to contend.

“Whether I’m meant to play another four or five or 10 years, or whether this is my last,” he said, “I’m perfectly OK with that.”

Getty Images

Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.

Getty Images

Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

Getty Images

Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

Getty Images

Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.