AKRON, Ohio – Justin Leonard sees the similarities.
He wasn’t playing well the last time the PGA Championship was held at Whistling Straits, back in 2004. But he found his game just in time and had a great week, even though he and Chris DiMarco lost to Vijay Singh in a playoff.
After struggling for much of this year, Leonard now feels as if he’s found some momentum at the Bridgestone Invitational – with Whistling Straits set to host its second PGA Championship next week.
“It was a fun week, you know, similar to this year,” Leonard said of that ’04 PGA.
After shooting a 66 Friday at Firestone Country Club, Leonard is tied for second with Phil Mickelson, a shot back of Retief Goosen.
Leonard said he wasn’t playing particularly well six years ago heading into the year’s final major championship, but felt as if he made strides in the days leading up to it. Then he battled with Singh down the stretch.
“I can’t go head-to-head with Vijay because he’s a foot taller than me, but toe-to-toe with Vijay that last day, that was fun,” Leonard said. “I have a lot of great memories from that week, and I look forward to reliving those onsite next week.”
The Texan, who won the 1997 British Open, hasn’t finished higher than a tie for 14th in any of his 18 PGA Tour starts in 2010. Yet he feels as though he has regained his touch this week at Firestone.
“I had a good couple of days here (practicing) on Tuesday and Wednesday,” Leonard said. “I played very solid yesterday and played well again this morning, so it’s nice. I’m very pleased but not overly surprised because I’ve felt like the last couple months I put in a lot of work, and the last couple weeks it started to pay off.”
PGA MEMORIES: U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell will be making his second trip to Whistling Straits next week for the PGA Championship, although forgive him if his memories are unclear.
McDowell was playing in only his second major championship in 2004.
“I was like a deer in headlights,” he said. “I was too busy being nervous.”
He recalls it being a links-looking course along Lake Michigan, although the course was soft. And he recalls getting a two-shot penalty in one of the two rounds he played for a mistake that is not uncommon on a course with so many bunkers.
He hit a shot out of the bunker toward the green and found sand again. His caddie, not realizing it was the same bunker, raked the sand.
“He didn’t tell me about it for five holes,” McDowell said. “But I knew something was wrong.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Phil Mickelson hit a big draw off the tee at 17, hitting a spectator in the shoulder. Mickelson gave him a glove for his trouble, then made an impressive par.
“I think that gentleman learned the hazards of following me,” Mickelson said.
COMING BACK: From a tie for 52nd on Thursday night to a share of 13th a day later, it was a good second round for Dustin Johnson.
On the heels of a 2-over 72, Johnson shot a 65 in the second round to match James Kingston for the low round of the day.
“I’ve been struggling with the putter,” Johnson said. “I didn’t struggle today.”
He took just 24 putts, 10 fewer than a day earlier.
One of the longest hitters on tour, Johnson decided it was more important to hit the fairway so he could spin the ball on approach shots.
As a result, he hit the ball closer to pins and started making some putts.
“I knew I had to come out and get a good round in this morning. And I did,” he said. “I’m really feeling good. I’m swinging the club well, so I’m hitting it close a lot. I got a lot of good looks at birdie. If I can just get a few putts to drop, I’m going to play well this weekend.”
TWO DOWN, TWO TO GO: Idle for three months after surgery to repair an injured thumb, Anthony Kim couldn’t be happier despite rounds of 75 and 76 at the Bridgestone Invitational.
The tournament doesn’t have a cut, so he was assured of playing 72 holes if his thumb held up.
“I’ve got a 7:30 tee time tomorrow, so I made the cut,” he joked. “I’m pretty excited.”
Kim had barely touched a club during his rehabilitation. He went out to the course one day and his mom tagged along – “and she beat me,” he said.
He is confident that each round draws him closer to reaching playing form.
“It’s sore but nothing I can’t handle,” he said. “I just have to go out there and make better golf swings.”
GRANDPA KENNY: Kenny Perry was beaming when he walked off the golf course Thursday, and not just because he opened with a 66.
“Hey, I’m going to be a granddad,” he said.
Perry learned on Sunday that his oldest daughter, Lesslye, was expecting her first child.
He was so thrilled with the news that he decided to stay home in Kentucky until Wednesday, didn’t have a practice round and took his game right to the tournament.
“I really didn’t have any goals, any expectations,” he said.
What he needs now is a plan. Perry turns 50 next week, making him eligible for the Champions Tour. He’ll be at the PGA Championship next week, then the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs. Perry said he plans to make a couple of senior starts before the year is over.
DIVOTS: Only four players have won at Firestone since 1997 when Tiger Woods was in the field: Greg Norman, David Duval, Darren Clarke and Stewart Cink. Of those, only Cink is at the Bridgestone Invitational this week. … Retief Goosen and Matt Kuchar lead the PGA Tour in top-10 finishes this year with seven apiece. … Goosen’s lead is his first on the PGA Tour this year. … In the gallery Friday was Larry Peck, who handled Buick’s golf marketing when Tiger Woods was its top client and the automaker was a prominent PGA Tour title sponsor. Peck, who brought his daughter with him, said it was his first time at a golf tournament since Woods won the Buick Open last year.