PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The man who walked off the Innisbrook Copperhead course after a third-round 67 that left him tied for the Tampa Bay Championship lead – five years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, 14 years removed from his Ryder Cup putt heard 'round the world and 16 years removed from his lone major championship – could be considered a superstar-turned-journeyman, though superstar is probably too brazen a superlative and journeyman too fallacious an insult.
His career is a case study in anomaly. Once on par with some of the game’s most elite players, he failed to continue on that path like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but hardly lost his game like David Duval. Instead, he has meandered down the path of the moderate. After collecting a dozen titles in just over a dozen years to start his career, he has now played 122 consecutive events without reaching the winner's circle.
And so after answering questions about specific shots throughout the day and how the course played and what it feels like to be in contention again, the 54-hole co-leader was asked one final question: What is the biggest difference between Justin Leonard when he won the 1997 Open Championship and Justin Leonard today?
Leonard thought for a second, then tugged on one of his graying sideburns and announced, “See that right there?” as signs of age trickled from beneath his cap and laughter emanated around him.
The truth is, there are plenty of differences between Leonard at age 25 and now at age 40.
“I vacillate between feeling pretty old and not feeling very old,” he explained. “When [fellow PGA Tour player] Brian Harman says, ‘Oh, I enjoyed playing in your AJGA tournament three years ago’ or something, you know, then I feel a little old and my back hurts a little bit. But when I get out there between the ropes and I don't have some 25-year-old giving me grief, I feel pretty good.”
Though the differences are numerous and far outweigh the similarities, that doesn’t mean getting back into contention is a foreign concept. Rounds of 71-69-67 have him seeking his first top-10 finish since last August, a period that spans 13 starts.
Leonard maintains, though, that playing with a tournament on the line is like that old riding-a-bicycle cliché. Once you’ve done it, you never forget how.
“Today I felt very comfortable out there,” he said. “I know it's just Saturday, but I also knew that I was up near the lead, and you know, it was a very familiar feeling. It's been awhile, but there weren't any surprises out there today.”
His fellow contenders likewise aren’t surprised to see his name amongst theirs entering the final round.
“I know he hasn’t played as well as he would have liked the last few years,” said Jim Furyk, who considers Leonard a close friend. “It’s probably been two or three years since he’s been real happy about his game. I think this is a perfect golf course for him. He has a lot of shots; he’s very much in control of his golf ball and his emotions. That’s what it takes to play this course well.
“I admire him. I think he’s a good person and I admire the way he goes about his business.”
All of which leads back to that final question after his round, the one about the biggest difference between Leonard then as opposed to now. After tugging on his gray hairs and making a quick joke, he spoke from the heart about how his priorities have changed.
“I can't even quantify the difference,” he said. “I was pretty singularly focused back then. It was golf and that was about it.
“Now golf is, depending on what day you ask me, it's anywhere from fourth to sixth on my list. You know, it defined me back then, and that was OK because I was playing great. Fortunately, it doesn't define me anymore. I've got a wonderful marriage and four great kids and I've got my faith that is constantly evolving and growing. Those are the things that are important to me.
“Golf is still very important and it's something that I love to do, but it doesn't define me the way that it did then.”
In some circles, Leonard's deference toward other priorities will be viewed not only as an explanation for his struggles, but a condemnation of what takes precedence in his life. By getting into contention – and by possibly winning this tournament on Sunday afternoon – he will quash any such thoughts.
Clearly he is a different player – and yes, a different person – from the one who won a major 16 years ago and clinched the Ryder Cup 14 years ago, and even the one who last claimed a title five years ago. Justin Leonard is just fine with the path he has chosen.
It just may lead him back to the winner’s circle again.