Justin Leonard is playing in Washington for the ninth time in the past 10 years this week at the Booz Allen Classic, about as loyal as a PGA Tour professional could possibly be these days to a tournament he still firmly believes helped him win his only major championship, the 1997 British Open at Royal Troon.
That same venue will be used for the British Open next month in Scotland, and Leonard would like to think he can jump-start his 2004 season this week and perhaps contend again at Troon in mid-July. In '97, he came from five shots behind after 54 holes to win the then-Kemper Open, then went to Troon and rallied from the same margin in the final round to overtake third-round leader Jesper Parnevik and Darren Clarke. At age 25, he became the youngest winner in 19 years at the world's oldest major tournament.
Leonard is 32 now, married and a father. The edges are probably a bit softer these days than in his early years on the PGA Tour, when many thought the Dallas native was the fire-in-the-belly reincarnation of Ben Hogan, a fellow Texan who burned to win anytime he teed it up. Leonard hasn't come close to matching Hogan's eight major victories, but that doesn't mean he's not capable of winning many more tournaments, including the 2004 Booz Allen, which starts today.
"I haven't played well this year," Leonard said Tuesday. "I hope to get it turned around this week in Washington. In '97, I wasn't playing very well before the Kemper. If I do the right things this week and get my game in shape, returning to Troon and those fans being as wonderful as they are, it should bring back great memories and give me a little confidence, too."
Seven years ago, Leonard was not unlike many of the young up-and-coming, immensely talented players in this week's Booz Allen field. He had secured his first of eight career victories the previous year at the Buick Open, but to casual followers of the PGA Tour, he was probably just another promising name among so many who have always made up the vast majority of most Washington fields after the tournament moved from a seven-year run at Congressional to Avenel in 1987.
This year, the Booz Allen field is filled with talented twenty-somethings -- Adam Scott, Aaron Baddeley, Charles Howell III, Matt Kuchar, Hank Kuehne and Tim Clark, among many others -- players who remind longtime and retired tournament chairman Ben Brundred of Leonard back in '97.
"Any of them can win any week they play," said Brundred, now chairman of the tournament board of directors. "And a lot of them are going to be the stars on this tour over the next five years, just like Justin was seven years ago."
Leonard recalls that week at the '97 Kemper Open with some fondness. The tournament was played the week before nearby Congressional Country Club hosted the U.S. Open, and many of the game's biggest names were entered, dropping roots in the area for two full weeks.
Leonard trailed tour veteran Mark Wiebe by five shots entering the final round of the Kemper but posted a 4-under-par 67 Sunday that held up when Wiebe shot 73 and had to settle for second place.
"I played well there, and I played well [at Congressional] the next week," Leonard said. "I used it as a mental pick-me-up [at Troon]. I knew I'd already come back from five shots at the Kemper. At Troon, it was the same sort of feeling, on a bit of a grander stage, of course. To try to do that in a major championship is much different. But my victory at the Kemper, if I had not won it, I'm not sure I would have had the mentality that I could overcome a five-shot deficit. I'd done it before, and in a major, anything can happen.
"I do look back now and wonder [how he did it]. My lack of experience at the time may have been one of my greatest assets. I didn't feel the pressure or the expectations that it's my tournament to have."
Leonard went on to handle the pressure of the singles matches in the memorable 1999 Ryder Cup at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. His 40-foot putt at the 17th hole against Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal earned the Cup-clinching half-point that pushed the U.S. team to the greatest comeback in the history of the competition, which might well be the signature stroke of his career.
He would also like to believe there may be more major championships and Ryder Cups in his future. In '99, he had a chance to win his second British Open at Carnoustie, arguably the toughest Open setup ever. Leonard came to the 18th hole several strokes behind leader Jean van de Velde of France, believing he had to make birdie to have any chance to win the tournament.
He hit a 3-wood second shot out of the rough and into a stream, rallied to make bogey and found himself in a playoff with eventual winner Paul Lawrie and Van de Velde, who had the tournament won until his triple bogey at the final hole. If Leonard had played for, and made, par on the 18th, he probably would have prevailed.
"The last twenty or thirty minutes of that tournament just took forever," Leonard said. "I just remember a huge feeling of disappointment afterward. To watch Jean, the way he played 18, and then to go from the disappointment of my own finish to go play in a playoff, it was just a very strange atmosphere. The players and the fans, none of us were prepared for that.
"I didn't play all that well that Sunday, and to swipe it around in the playoff just wouldn't cut it. Lawrie had an incredible final round and then played very well in the playoff. That's one you'd like to have back."
Still, Leonard is hardly complaining. Though he has only one top-10 finish this year and is 72nd on the money list with $571,527, he'd like to think this will be a week he can put all the parts of his game together, and use this week as a springboard to another memorable season. Maybe he could even bottle a bit of magic to make it happen at Troon one more time.
"My game has had flashes of inconsistency," Leonard said. "Early in the year, I wasn't putting well. The last couple of weeks I've driven the ball poorly. I think I've got that worked out with Butch [Harmon, his swing instructor the past two seasons]. I feel like I'm a better player [than in '97]. I've got better shots; my swing has improved. I'm probably a more complete player. If I can put things together this week like I did in '97, I think I can compete at a high level."