Leonards Run Begins at Home

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For Justin Leonard, the dominos start to fall on Thursday in Irving, Tx.

Leonard will play the next four weeks on the PGA Tour, beginning with this weeks Verizon Byron Nelson Classic and culminating with the Memorial Tournament.
 
From Lord Byrons tournament to Jack Nicklaus, Leonard is preparing himself for the U.S. Open, which, in turn, will go a long way to determining whether or not he makes this years Ryder Cup team.
 
The 101st U.S. Open will take place at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. Following his four-week stretch, Leonard will skip the FedEx St. Jude Classic, which directly precedes the Open.
 
Leonard is playing for the first time since the Shell Houston Open, where he tied for fourth two weeks ago.
 
The finish was Leonards first top-10 since the Mercedes Championships in January. In between Hawaii and Houston, the 28-year-old missed five cuts and failed to break the top-25 in four other starts.
 
However, it wasnt as bad as it looked on paper.
 
I saw some positive things through that, Leonard said on Tuesday. And even through the missed cuts, and the 73s and 74s, there were stretches in the rounds where I actually played some pretty good golf.
 
The root of Leonard's lackluster results was easy to trace. He spent the first five months of the season refining his swing.
 
Despite winning the 2000 Texas Open and collecting a trio of runner-up finishes, Leonard wasnt happy with his play a season ago. His felt his swing was faulty, unable to sustain the pressure of four full rounds.
 
Ive shortened my swing and Ive simplified my swing, said the 1997 British Open champion. Ive taken a lot of the excess movement out of my swing by a different position at address. And basically, Ive got a better understanding of what Im trying to do in the golf swing and how it is supposed to feel.
 
Leonard knew his swing overhaul would be painful in terms of his performance. In fact, he was more surprised than anyone when he finished inside the top-10 in his first two starts of the 2001 campaign.
 
I set myself up for a big fall with those first two events, he said. Now, I feel like Im playing at a more consistent level.
 
Im not working on eight different things anymore. The last couple of weeks Ive spent trying to move the ball up a little bit in my stance, and just checking my alignment. You know, thats as simple as it gets. And Ive gotten very comfortable with it.
 
Leonards simplistic approach will be tested mightily this week outside Dallas. Thirteen of the top 20 players in the world are in attendance this week, including Tiger Woods, who is making his first appearance since winning his fourth consecutive major and third straight overall event at the Masters Tournament.
 
In addition to the impressive field - which also includes Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh - Leonard will also have to battle a pair of courses that have caused him a bit of turmoil over the years.
 
Though hes a Dallas native and a former All-America at the University of Texas, Leonard has yet to crack the top-20 in seven prior Nelson starts.
 
Last year, he opened in 80 and missed the cut.
 
Leonard and the rest of the 156-man field will alternate play over the first two days on the TPC at Las Colinas and the Cottonwood Valley Course.
 
Both tracks are a par-70. Las Colinas, the host course, will be ultimate battlefield over the weekend.
 
The purse has climbed to $4.5 million this year, with $810,000 going to the winner ' thats $90K more than Jesper Parnevik collected in winning last year.
 
But Leonard isnt concerned with prize money.
 
With three major championships left on the calendar and the Ryder Cup looming in late September, Leonard has more than money on his mind.
 
Youll recall it was Leonard who sank the controversial 45-foot clinching birdie putt in the 1999 Ryder Cup. He currently stands in 22nd place on the 2001 points list.
 
And to get to where he wants to go, Leonard is relying on an old clich ' one step at a time.
 
Thursday is first. Thats my first priority, said Leonard. Sunday night, my priority is Fort Worth and what I do at the Colonial. Ill take the first challenge Ive got and put everything into that.
 
If I play poorly these next four weeks, you know, the majors are out, Ryder Cup is out. I never put all of my eggs in one basket.
 
But I just know Ive got a really good feeling about my game, and the tournaments that are coming up, and, you know, Im just really looking forward to this week and this whole summer.
 
That first domino will fall Thursday morning at 11:50am CT at Las Colinas.
 
Full field and tee times for the 2001 Verizon Byron Nelson Classic