Leonard had just missed a short par putt on the ninth hole at Callaway Gardens when he heard someone say, 'Nice putt, Justin.' He stopped. He scowled. He stared. But when he saw the startled look on the man's face, he realized the reference.
This was 1999, one week after the Ryder Cup at Brookline.
Oh, that putt.
Nine years later, Leonard finally returns to the Ryder Cup.
'It doesn't seem that long ago because I've played in a couple of Presidents Cups, having kids and everything,' he said. 'But when I think of the Ryder Cup since then and how much it has changed, how the players changed, it's like, 'Has it really been nine years?' '
Leonard had three children in a 34-month span. He has revamped his swing and put it back the way it was. And he has watched the last three Ryder Cups on television, all of them European victories.
One thing that hasn't changed is the conversation about him.
Never mind that Leonard won a U.S. Amateur and a British Open, or that his dozen PGA TOUR victories include THE PLAYERS Championship. His career is defined by a single stroke with the putter.
'It's like 5-to-1 the comments I get about the Ryder Cup,' Leonard said. 'Where would I put it in my golfing career? I'd put it first, too. I would. Because it wasn't a total individual achievement. My little match was, but it meant something greater than that.'
It was so great that it turned ugly.
No sooner had Leonard turned with arms raised and ran off the edge of the green did U.S. players, wives and caddies charge across the putting surface to celebrate, even though Jose Maria Olazabal still had a 25-foot putt to tie. He missed.
Often forgotten amid the celebration is that Leonard didn't win the match.
In fact, he has never won a Ryder Cup match. Leonard's record from two Ryder Cups is 0-3-5. All he cares about now is getting another opportunity to change that when the Americans try to end a decade of losing to Europe on Sept. 19-21 at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky.
Leonard, the star of the American rally, produced a comeback of his own.
He failed to make the 2001 team, then had to wait three more years to try again when the Ryder Cup was postponed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He came close to earning a spot on the '04 team, but needing a victory in the PGA Championship, he bogeyed the last hole at Whistling Straits and lost in a three-man playoff to Vijay Singh.
And last time, he wasn't even a consideration.
In a search for length off the tee, Leonard finished out of the top 100 on the PGA TOUR money list for the first time in his career in 2006. He started the next season by missing the cut in his first six tournaments.
He never allowed himself to think that putt at Brookline would be his final Ryder Cup memory.
'People around me wouldn't let me do that ' Amanda first and foremost,' he said of his wife. 'She always told me about believing in myself. I spent more time two years ago, when I wasn't playing well, thinking about the Ryder Cup and the British Open, getting myself back in that mind-set. I really felt like I'd make another Ryder Cup team.
'I'm glad I didn't wait another two years, though.'
Some of the slump was induced by trying to change his swing. A lot of it was due to changes in his life.
Leonard met Amanda Beach in a Dallas parking garage, and they were married in February 2002. Their first daughter, Reese, was born in September of 2003; sister Avery came along in March of 2005 and Luke was born in July of 2006.
'That takes getting used to,' said Scott Verplank, his longtime friend and a father of four. 'Now when you go back to your hotel, it all begins. But I knew Justin well enough to know this was only a temporary setback.'
Leonard's wife didn't know much about golf when they were dating, but she knew he was talented enough to make annual stops at the TOUR Championship, win majors, be part of the Ryder Cup team. When they weren't changing diapers, they had honest discussions about his game and his goals, and it started with the Ryder Cup.
'I told him, 'You're the one who's got to do this,' she said.
The night after the PGA Championship ' Leonard was No. 6 in the standings ' they had a quiet celebration in their room and raised a glass of wine for a toast that was a long time coming.
'It was a genuine celebration,' she said, 'because he earned it.'
Now comes the hard part. Leonard laughs when he recalls the late Payne Stewart chirping in 1999 that the Americans had not won the Ryder Cup since he was last on the team. The 36-year-old Texan won't go that far, but he's happy to be back.
'He has been the link from our last winning Ryder Cup team,' Phil Mickelson said. 'He hasn't played since '99, and I think he's going to bring that winning inspiration.'
U.S. captain Paul Azinger feels the same way.
'He has a lot of heart and a lot of moxie,' Azinger said. 'He's going to be fun to have on this team.'
The last Ryder Cup was anything but that until the final day. Leonard halved two fourball matches and lost his foursomes match with Stewart. At one point, NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller suggested that Leonard would be better off at home, a remark that riled Leonard and the U.S. team.
But it didn't look far from the truth when Olazabal went 4 up through 11 holes, and Leonard opted to lay up short of the green on the par-4 12th. He wound up making a 12-footer for par to win the hole.
'That was the start of it,' he said.
Davis Love III, who already had won his singles match, decided to walk with him. Leonard politely suggested that Love go somewhere else, perhaps another match that was closer than his.
'He said, 'I'm staying with you. I think you're going to do something special,' ' Leonard said.
Leonard won four consecutive holes, the last one with a 35-foot birdie on the 15th, setting up his Ryder Cup moment on No. 17, a putt that is the last link to a U.S. victory. He does not remember anything about the 18th hole, only that he should have conceded a putt to Olazabal, who won the final hole for a halve. By then, the celebration was on.
Little did Leonard know it would take so long for an encore.