Leonard is a supremely talented golfer who has only this one little problem ' he just doesnt conk the ball out there far enough to seriously contend week-in and week-out. Hes a wonderful putter and a sure iron player. But when it comes to tee-shot launches, he normally has to take a back seat while the big boys have their fun.
Of course, last week was the Bob Hope Chrysler Championship. The courses at the Hope are fairly short by tour standards. And, the greens are superb. It was an ideal formula for J. Leonard.
Now, Leonard has occasionally done very well in big championships. But they werent exhibitions for the big bashers where anyone could just line up and let it fly. There was the British Open at Troon ' which Justin won. There was the British Open at Carnoustie, where he went into a playoff before losing to Paul Lawrie. There was the Players Championship in 1998 ' which he won. And there was the PGA Championship last year, where Leonard got into a playoff before losing to Vijay Singh.
In each instance, the tournaments required careful iron play more than howitzers off the tee. As Tom Kite, never a long hitter, used to say, As long as everyone is forced to hit driver, make the course as long as you want to. Ill hit drivers with any of em.
Meaning that, Kite could play with anyone when it came to having to hit the clubs straight. Where Kite missed out was on courses where everyone else could hit 3-wood or 2-iron while he was having to hit the driver. If there isnt enough rough to narrow in the fairways, Kite knew he was facing long odds.
So, too, is Leonard. But there are three or four tournaments a year where length is very little advantage. And putting is a great advantage. Hel-lo, Hope tourney!
This year, sure enough, there stands Justin at 149th on the list of driving distance after just seven rounds. But he stands second in putting, and you can just about forget any lapses with the driver. Which stat is more important? You decide.
Leonard made a big switch is the off-season, giving up his Ben Hogan clubs which he had used since turning pro 10 years ago for a set of Nikes. Its still too early to tell what that means ' after all, Leonard was pretty darn successful with the old sticks. But he adjusted to the Nikes fairly quickly, winning with them in just his second outing after missing the cut at San Diego. A secret for you, though ' Hogans old club designer, Tom Stites, is now the big dog at Nike. See the semblance?
The list of Bob Hope winners has been pretty impressive, despite the fact that the courses are short and amateurs are playing four of the five rounds. Just since 98, the list has included Fred Couples, David Duval, Jesper Parnevik, Phil Mickelson twice and Mike Weir, with Joe Durant thrown in during a particularly hot spring in 2001. The last two Hope winners, incidentally, were also the last two winners at the Masters ' Weir and Mickelson.
And now, Leonard, perchance?
I would say it's coincidence, said a smiling Justin. But look at the two players who won this tournament the previous two years (Weir and Mickelson.) Two pretty good players that probably set up pretty well for Augusta.
I love playing Augusta. I'm looking very much forward to it. I certainly hope to keep that stream alive. I may write that in my yardage book to give me a little boost of confidence.
Confidence was something he couldnt have had much off coming into the Hope, since at Leonards only other outing this year ' the Buick Invitational ' he missed the cut after shooting 74 the first day. But he blames that on what was for him a long off-season (two months), plus the equipment change.
But I felt like as the week went on (at the Hope), my practice sessions got a little better, said Justin. It didn't necessarily transfer over to the golf course, but I just seemed to hit the ball more solidly as the week went on.
You know, I enjoy coming to this event. I enjoy playing with the amateurs, enjoy the golf courses, the weather. And so, I felt like after my practice sessions on Friday and Saturday during the fog delays where I hit balls for about two hours maybe only being able to see it for about 60 yards had something to do with it.
Of course, maybe the Bob Hope courses had something to do with it, too. But then, so much is new with the old Justin. Maybe there will be new results, as well.
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