Leonard Looking for His Match

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- Justin Leonard had just missed a short par putt when a voice from the gallery turned his glare into a scowl.
 
'I'm walking to the 10th tee and this guy says, 'Nice putt,' and I turned around and looked at him like he was crazy,' Leonard recalled. 'I had to fight myself from walking back there to say something.
 
'Then, I realized he was probably talking about last week. At least I hope he was.'
 
The year was 1999, and the week before, Leonard stood 45 feet away from the hole on the 17th green at The Country Club with nothing less than the Ryder Cup on the line and his country counting on him.
 
What followed became one of the most famous shots in golf.
 
When the ball banged into the back of the cup, the Americans were assured the half-point they needed to pull off the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history. Leonard was the hero.
 
Little did the patriotic Texan know when he walked off the course, it would be four years before he would get a chance to return to the atmosphere he cherishes.
 
Leonard and Jim Furyk will represent the United States in the World Cup this week at Kiawah Island, S.C., then join the rest of the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup in South Africa.
 
'I've missed it a lot,' Leonard said.
 
Certain shots can become a player's legacy. David Duval's 6-foot eagle putt to shoot 59. Hal Sutton's 6-iron into the 18th green to hold off Tiger Woods at The Players Championship. Ben Hogan's 1-iron into the 18th green at Merion in the U.S. Open.
 
Leonard is a major champion. Coincidentally, the decisive blow when he won the '97 British Open at Royal Troon also was a long birdie putt on the 17th. A year later, he came from five strokes behind to win The Players Championship.
 
But mention his name, and the first thing that comes to mind -- maybe the only thing -- is the Ryder Cup. The twisted part of Leonard's fame is that he's never even won a Ryder Cup match.
 
Everyone remembers the putt, but not many realize that Leonard only halved his match against Jose Maria Olazabal. Throw in the Presidents Cup, and Leonard's record in team matches is bordering on pathetic -- one victory, nine losses, five ties.
 
'I know it's pretty bad,' Leonard said. 'I know I haven't won a lot of matches. I've tied a lot of matches, but I've lost a bunch. I'd certainly like to change that.'
 
Leonard, who played in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup four years in a row, never imagined having to wait so long for the next opportunity. Some of it was bad play. Some of it was bad timing.
 
He went through a slump in 2000 and just missed out on the Presidents Cup. Leonard hired Butch Harmon to retool his swing, and he didn't adapt to the changes until after the 2001 Ryder Cup team was selected. Then came the one-year delay because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
 
'It's been strange the last couple of times to be on the outside looking in,' he said.
 
Leonard seems to have all the right ingredients for match play, especially the team variety. He is easily paired. He generally keeps the ball in front of him. While he's not a power player, Leonard has a gritty short game and a knack for making pivotal putts.
 
So, what gives with that 1-9-5 record? Nothing that can be explained. Nothing for which he should apologize.
 
'He's a guy you want out there making putts that are important,' said Davis Love III, who walked with Leonard during his comeback against Olazabal in the Ryder Cup. 'His record is not that good, but he played the best stretch of six holes maybe in Ryder Cup history. He knows he can do it.'
 
One of the most overrated aspects of the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup or Solheim Cup is an individual's record, especially the team variety. There are countless stories about two guys who play well enough to win any match during that session except the one they're playing. Records never reflect how well, or how poorly, a partner is playing.
 
'His record is not the greatest,' Furyk said of Leonard. 'But he's a hell of a teammate.'
 
Love would be the first to admit that he played below his standards in the 1998 Presidents Cup by hitting a few errant tee shots and plenty of missed putts. He and Leonard were 0-1-1 as a team, and that halve was courtesy of Leonard's approach into 6 feet on the final hole for birdie.
 
'I put him under some trees,' Love said. 'We were both not good, but I killed him. If not for me, he would have won a few matches.'
 
Raymond Floyd was as tough as they come, yet his record was 12-16-3 in the eight Ryder Cups he played -- and he was on the winning side seven times. Tiger Woods is 10-13-2 in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.
 
'People don't talk about Bernhard Langer's record or Nick Faldo's record in the Ryder Cup,' Woods said. 'They talk about how many teams they made. That's what is important.'
 
Leonard is back on the team. To him, that's what matters the most.
 
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