- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

Golf is a mysterious game, as Justin Leonard will tell you. One week you're so frustrated that "people are handing you straitjackets," and the next week "you're the favorite" to win a tournament.
Leonard could only smile yesterday at the insanity of it. He may be just a kid 28 later this month but he has been on the PGA Tour long enough to know that everybody goes through the kind of stretch he has lately. Even the best players have periods when they look like they flunked driving school, when their short game short circuits, when their putting goes ka-putt.
When Leonard teed it up in the Memorial last week, he hadn't had a top-10 finish in his last 16 events or a win in more than two years. He was still making enough money to pay the bills, but he wasn't contending. And the situation was getting worse, not better. He had missed two cuts in a row (Houston, the Nelson), and followed that up with a 61st-place showing at Colonial. The British Open title he captured in '97 seemed far, far away.
Seventy-two soggy holes later, though, the crisis had passed at least, Leonard hopes it has. He tied for second at Muirfield behind Tiger Woods, shooting 66-68 on the weekend, and now he gets to play in the Kemper, a tournament he won three years ago against the toughest Avenel field ever. Whether or not he wins this week, he appears to have rid himself of the demons that have been stomping around in his subconscious. That's the first step in any struggling golfer's rehabilitation.
"After last week," he said, "I'm in a little different mindset. I'm not thinking any more about the problems I've had this year. I've got a nice, fresh attitude coming to a place [where] I've won before. I just feel like I'm on the right track now."
Leonard has no idea why his game chose to come around last week, none whatsoever. "It wasn't like I had an epiphany on the first tee Thursday," he said. "There have been times [the past 10 months] when I've driven the ball well, hit my irons well, putted well, but it was never the same week. At Memorial I was able to do a few things a little better than I have been."
It's probably no coincidence that Leonard's play began to go south last summer not long after he lost a three-way playoff in the British Open to Paul Lawrie. You don't get many chances to win major titles, and Lawrie ain't exactly Nick Faldo. (Neither was the other playoff entrant, Jean Van de Velde.) Leonard doesn't deny that the defeat stayed with him.
"Sure it did," he said. "The same thing happened in '97 after the PGA [when he was runner-up to Davis Love], even though I'd won the British Open a month earlier. Anytime you come close it hangs with you, and a major has even more of an effect."
By the time the Ryder Cup rolled around in September, Leonard was clearly groping and his play against the Europeans (0-1-3 in four matches) reflected that. But all was forgiven when he rolled in a 45-foot putt on the Country Club's 17th hole to halve his singles match with Jose Maria Olazabal and clinch the Cup for the United States. Even at one of his lowest points, Leonard managed to make history.
"It definitely made the winter more enjoyable," he said. "I'm not saying it would have been a bad year if the putt hadn't gone in, but that more than made up for it."
And now he might be ready to win again, which is good news for the Tour. More than one veteran has complained this spring that too much of the attention in golf is focused on Woods to the exclusion of other fine players. But there's a reason for that: Many of the top players are in the midst of lengthy droughts. Leonard, Love and David Duval haven't won in more than two years. Ernie Els hasn't won in 15 months. And Phil Mickelson hadn't won in more than two years when he held off Tiger at the Buick Invitational in February (a victory he has followed with two more wins). Woods has monopolized people's attentions because no one has really challenged him on a week-to-week basis.
"Yeah, there's a lot of Tiger out there," Leonard agreed. "That's what people want to talk about. But there are other guys having good years. Phil Mickelson, Hal Sutton and how great has Davis Love played? Everybody feels sorry for him because he hasn't been able to do it on Sunday, but to give yourself that many chances [three seconds, one third, three fourths] you have to be playing well."
Soon enough, Leonard will start giving himself chances, too. Maybe it will happen at Avenel this week. He seems, after all, to be back on his game and he certainly knows the lay of the land.

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