Winning path turns slippery

Golf: With memories of his big run in 1997 and '98 haunting hime. Justin Leonard is hoping the Kemper Open at Avenel will again be the start of something good.

May 27, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC -- He stood on the practice tee Tuesday afternoon at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, hitting balls and seeking answers that seemed to come so easily during a nine-month stretch that ended early last year. Justin Leonard won three times and became one of the biggest stars on the PGA Tour.

Leonard is as perplexed as anyone in trying to figure out what has happened since.

His bank statements don't reflect as big a difference as the look on his face. The confidence Leonard exuded after winning his first major championship two years ago at the British Open is not as apparent. The look of steely determination is still there, but it has more to do with him fighting to get back to the top of the leader board.

Since finishing second in his second event this year, the Phoenix Open, and tying for fourth the next week at Pebble Beach, Leonard has rarely been in the hunt. His best finish since Pebble Beach came two weeks ago after he opened the GTE Byron Nelson Classic with a 63, but wound up tied for 12th.

"It's frustrating not being there, not being in the last couple of groups on Sunday," Leonard said. "That's a challenge to get back there."

The challenge will continue at Avenel, where Leonard is one of the headliners in the Kemper Open beginning today. The 26-year-old Texan won here two years ago when Mark Wiebe's late wobble opened the door for Leonard's second victory as a pro.

A little more than a month later, Leonard won the British Open at Royal Birkdale in Troon, Scotland.

In both victories, as well as in his win in The Players Championship last year, he shot a superb final round to pass the third-round leader.

Asked what he remembered of his victory in the Kemper Open, Leonard said: "It was one of those things where I played OK on the front nine [on Sunday] and I made some birdies coming in [for a 67]. It kind of almost caught me by surprise."

He said the win played a factor in the British Open, in which he passed Sweden's Jesper Parnevik with a final-round 65, as well as at Sawgrass last year, when he overtook a collapsing Lee Janzen with a final-round 67.

"It may not have changed the way I played; it may have changed my mind-set going into [the final round of] the British," he said.

That victory certainly raised Leonard's profile. He was mentioned along with then-reigning Masters champion Tiger Woods and soon-to-be two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa as the game's new Big Three, following the legacy of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

Because of the persona Leonard displayed on the course, there were also comparisons to another hard-nosed Texan, the legendary Ben Hogan. It served to heighten the expectations every time Leonard teed it up.

"I don't think I've put too much pressure on myself," he said between shots on the practice range Tuesday.

"Maybe in the last month, I might have tried a little too hard. I'm not trying to get back anywhere because I don't feel I've fallen off that far. I haven't won in a while, and that's what I'm trying to do."

Leonard was in the hunt at Avenel last year after the first two rounds. He made a hole-in-one en route to a 67 Saturday, leaving him three shots behind playing partner Fred Funk. But he was derailed by a triple-bogey on the par-3 ninth hole Saturday, shot 76 and finished tied for 25th after a 73 on Sunday.

"I'm not sure what I did [on the ninth], but it was bad," he said.

Helped by the $720,000 check he took home from The Players Championship, he finished eighth in earnings last year with a career-best $1,671,823.

That total eclipsed the $1,587,531 he won in 1997, when he finished fifth on the money list. Despite not finishing in the Top 10 the past four months, Leonard comes into this week ranked No. 11 at $905,537.

He's still the same kind of player he was when he was winning. He ranks 110th in driving distance, but fourth in scoring average (69.66) and eighth in putting. Eventually, he'll make enough putts to win, maybe even at Avenel this week. For now, the search continues.

"I don't think there is an answer," he said. "I haven't played well enough at the right time, I suppose."

Kemper Open

Where: TPC at Avenel, Potomac

When: Today-Sunday

Course: 7,005 yards, par 71

Today's TV: HTS, 4 p.m.

Tickets: 301-469-3737

Tee times. 8d

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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