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Leonard Looking for More Out of This Heritage Trip

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HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Justin Leonard's attitude -- and expectations -- about the MCI Heritage certainly have changed in the last two years.
 
He had never finished better than 30th from 1995-01 and friends had to twist Leonard's arm to get him back to Harbour Town Golf Links last spring. Then, he surprised himself with a victory in the tournament, then called the WorldCom Classic.
 
This time, Leonard's eager to play and ready to defend a title he never thought he'd have.
 
'I feel pretty good about where my game is right now,' Leonard said Wednesday. 'After finally kind of breaking through here last year and playing well, I do expect more this year than I did coming in here last year.'
 
Leonard opens play Thursday. The tournament was rechristened the MCI Heritage after the telecommunications company announced its four-year deal to become title sponsor.
 
Several top players, including Tiger Woods, are taking the week after the Masters off and won't take part.
 
Leonard wasn't missing this one. After all, where else can you not make a birdie, shoot 2-over 73 in the final round and still win?
 
'A golf course like this, when the greens get firm, it plays very difficult,' Leonard said. 'Obviously, I was fortunate in not playing a great round of golf, but kind of getting around and just playing well enough.'
 
The win proved to Leonard that he could achieve on a small, tight course not always suited to his strengths. It also propelled the former British Open champion to his best career year moneywise, with $2,738,235. He finished eighth in on the money list, his best result since 1999.
 
And Leonard's got more momentum coming in this time than he did in 2002. He won the Honda Classic last month and, despite missing the Masters cut, likes the way he's hitting the ball.
 
He's even got a bigtime supporter in South Carolina football coach Lou Holtz, grouped with Leonard during Wednesday's pro-am competition.
 
'Only one time he came close to a bogey and about eight times he missed a birdie by that much,' said Holtz, holding his hands just inches apart. 'He said, 'Well, I'll make them tomorrow.''
 
Leonard was among several Masters competitors looking to recharge themselves after a draining time at Augusta National. The chase for the green jacket takes its toll, no matter how well or poor you play.
 
'Usually, by Tuesday, I'm feeling pretty good,' said Jonathan Byrd, tied for eighth last week. 'But this week, I needed to sleep in an extra morning.'
 
Masters champion Mike Weir and third-place finisher Phil Mickelson also are skipping the MCI Heritage. However, Len Mattiace, who shot a final-round 65 and lost a playoff to Weir, can't wait to tee it up.
 
Mattiace was a fan favorite during the pro-am, cheered and encouraged as much for his emotional, tear-filled comments following the near victory as for his stellar play.
 
'I feel confident right now that I have rounds like that in me,' Mattiace said of closing effort at Augusta.
 
Leonard hopes he too has more winning rounds ahead at Harbour Town. He's driving the ball well and likes his putting stroke.
 
'When my iron play matches up with those two things, I can have some good results,' he said.
 

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.