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Lonely at the Top

2007 Bob Hope Chrysler ClassicJustin Leonard figured to be the lead story line Sunday in the Southern California desert whether he liked it or not. He entered the final round of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic with a four-shot lead over an eclectic quartet of players that included Anthony Kim, Kenny Perry, D.J. Trahan and Robert Gamez.
Trahan sizzled to a 65. Leonard, playing the last 11 holes in 3 over par, limped in with a 72. Leonard was sportsmanlike in defeat but it was painful to hear him feel the need to say late Sunday that, on the last hole, he was just trying to get out of D.J.s way.
I think they pretty much all hurt the same, Leonard said, about a career that has included more than his share of high highs and low lows.
You see, the downside of having a 4-shot lead going into Sunday is the ignominy'the ignominy of how youre going to feel and what people are going to think if you dont close the deal. They say you cant play defense in golf and they are correct. But its very often hard not to play defensively, especially on the final day, when you have a big lead.
Trahan had little to lose in the expectations department and he turned that into a competitive advantage. You certainly dont feel optimistic about it (his chance of winning at the beginning of the day) when youre playing against a guy like Justin Leonard, he said.
Leonard once won a British Open from five shots back on the final day. He also won a PLAYERS from five shots back on the final day. He knew the drill better than Trahan. He also knew that being in the drivers seat in golf is often the place where a player has the least control.
My challenge, Leonard said before teeing off in the final group, is to keep playing the way Ive been playing. I dont want to change anything because what Im doing is working.
He was most definitely not up to that challenge three years ago in Memphis at the FedEx St. Judes Classic when he showed up on the first tee box Sunday with an 8-shot lead.
He would need to convert an up-and-down for par on 17 and make a 3 1/2-foot putt for bogey on the 72nd hole to hold off David Toms by a shot and clinch his 10th PGA TOUR victory. If Leonard had failed to win that day, he famously would have set a new TOUR record for the biggest blown 54-hole lead.
I just wanted to get it in, Leonard said after that round in which he didnt register one birdie and hit just five fairways in regulation. His closing 73 was three over par.
On the other hand, Leonard entered the final round of the Hope having won five of his 11 TOUR titles after sleeping on the lead Saturday night.
Leonard was correct to assume that at least one of his four closest pursuers Sunday would make an early move. He had, after all, fired a closing 67 of his own to win this same 90-hole event three years ago after trailing Joe Ogilvie by three shots through 72.
And sure enough, both Gamez and Trajan, playing in the same group as Leonard, birdied two of the first three holes Sunday. Leonard answered with two pars and a birdie on the third.
The beginning of the end came on the ninth hole where Leonards first three-putt of the week initiated a chain of poorly-executed shots. The momentum built on itself and Trahan was smart enough and skilled enough to seize the opportunity. For this, he is now in the 2008 Masters.
Last year at this time Leonard was struggling with multiple parts of his game. He has turned it around (four top-10s in his last six starts) and, off the course, he talked about how happy he is in his family and spiritual life. But that only takes a little bit of the sting out of it, not all of it, he said.
One other thankful note: There was no final round cut controversy this week at the Hope. The cut came at 7 under and 76 players advanced. That number necessitated final round threesomes and split tees. But there was no whining from the players, many of whom had been unhappy last week at the Sony Open when a new rule left almost 20 players without weekend tee times even though they had made the cut.
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