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One-time Ryder hero on outside looking in

In the process of remaking his game, Justin Leonard may not get a chance to reprise his dramatic role.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 15, 2001


DULUTH, Ga. -- Justin Leonard is encouraged, if not ecstatic. He enters the PGA Championship coming off a rare decent finish, a tie for 10th at the Buick Open. Yet he knows his game could leave at any moment.

That is the frustrating fallout of trying to get better. Often, in the interim, you get worse. Leonard, who began an overhaul of his swing last fall, still is working out the kinks.

All of which means Leonard is a longshot to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which will be determined at the end of this week.

The PGA Championship, which begins Thursday at Atlanta Athletic Club, offers this sub-plot in odd-numbered years. It is where the race for the top 10 spots on the team concludes. And it is where the two captain's selections are announced after the tournament. Curtis Strange will make his at-large picks known Monday.

Unless he wins the PGA, Leonard does not figure to be one of them, a strange development in light of his hero status two years ago.

It was Leonard who drained a 45-foot putt on the 17th hole of his Sunday singles match with Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal to guarantee the biggest final-day comeback in Ryder Cup history. It also touched off a wild celebration, one that still raises the ire of any flag-waving European, one that no doubt will be the subject of discussion next month.

"It didn't change me, but the reaction definitely has been more than I would have thought," said Leonard, who probably is known more for that putt than his 1997 British Open victory. "I still to this day have people come up to me and say, "Nice putt.' Sometimes I'm not even sure what they're talking about."

Yet Leonard, in all likelihood, will not be at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England, for the matches.

"Golf is a cyclical sport," Leonard said. "When you're looking at a Ryder Cup team, you have to look at what a player has done recently. Two years is a long time. And I'm not sure what happened in 1999 warrants any consideration at all now for this team."

Ironically, if Leonard does not make the team, he will defend his lone 2000 title at the Texas Open in San Antonio. The tournament is the same week as the Ryder Cup. Obviously, if Leonard makes the Ryder Cup team, he would be unable to defend his title.

Leonard enters the PGA Championship in 23rd place with 376.250 points and is 167.500 points behind Tom Lehman, who is in 10th position. To replace Lehman in the 10th spot, Leonard would need to finish no worse than in a two-way tie for second. Should Lehman move up with a top-10 finish, Leonard would need to win to catch ninth-place Stewart Cink.

"I'm not in great position," Leonard said. "I need to play some good golf. And I'll be disappointed if I'm not in the Ryder Cup. I'm still thinking that I can make the team.

"But I've got a great alternative playing the Texas Open. I won't be at home watching on TV."

Leonard began the process of reworking his swing last fall with the help of Butch Harmon, whose prize pupil is Tiger Woods. The idea was to change Leonard's setup and swing, hoping to increase length and cut down on inconsistencies.

There have been five top-10 finishes this year, his best a tie for fourth at the Houston Open. But Leonard missed the cut at the U.S. Open and British Open.

"Some people underestimate what it takes to get through some swing changes," he said. "There have been a lot of times when I've thought, "Okay, I've got this thing licked. Now let's go win some tournaments.' And that's usually about the time things fall apart. It's a constant battle, and so far, I've lost that battle more than I've won it."

Strange has offered few hints as to whom his captain's selections might be, but he was blunt in his assessment of Leonard's chances.

"Justin has been going through swing changes," Strange said. "The world thinks that Justin is automatically on the next team, which obviously is not the case. He's been doing better. But when you go through swing changes, you get worse before you get better, and that's what happened to him."

In other words, Strange doesn't want a player not committed to his swing having to pull the trigger during the heat of a Ryder Cup.

Leonard understands.

"I feel like I'm definitely on the right track," he said. "At 29 years old, I feel like I have my best golf ahead of me. I'm in it for the long haul. Sure, I'd like to play wonderful for the next month, but I'm more interested in playing great for the next 100 months."

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