- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Justin Leonard looks like the only lock for this week's Kemper Open leader board.

Only three players in the world can claim to be hotter than the intense Texan Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson. Of that trio, only Mickelson will be among the 156 players on hand at TPC at Avenel, and Lefty lacks Leonard's glowing Kemper credentials.

The 28-year-old Leonard has made six consecutive starts at the Kemper Open since becoming a fully exempt member of the PGA Tour in 1995, besting the event's strongest-ever field in 1997, posting a total of four top-10s and never finishing worse than 22nd. Last year, he began his final round just two strokes behind the leaders but faltered on the back nine, slumping into a five-way tie for second behind champion Tom Scherrer.

"I've played very well on this golf course for the most part, but it's a difficult course and those things happen," Leonard said yesterday. "It's a long, long way behind me now."

So are some elements of the distinctive swing that helped Leonard to the 1992 U.S. Amateur title, 1994 NCAA title and five PGA Tour victories, including the 1997 British Open and 1998 Players Championship. After winning only one relatively insignificant event (2000 Texas Open) over the last two years, Leonard decided to revamp his swing in the offseason. With the blessing of Dallas-based instructor Randy Smith, who worked with Leonard practically from the crib, Leonard sought the advice of Butch Harmon, Tiger's famed swing swami. Harmon changed Leonard's position at address, pulling his hands slightly back from their traditional pressed position, and shortened his swing.

"Those were the two main changes," Leonard said. "My ball flight is similar the trajectory is about the same, but now there's a little less movement, a little less bend left-to-right."

Like most post-overhaul players, Leonard began the season as the picture of inconsistency, uncharacteristically missing five cuts by mid-April. But over the last month, Leonard's new move finally has started paying dividends. Starting with his fourth-place finish at the Houston Open (April 22), Leonard has reeled off 12 straight rounds at par or better that have led to three straight top-6 finishes the others coming at the Byron Nelson Classic (T6) and last week's Colonial (T5).

"My game's absolutely coming around," Leonard said. "I've gained a lot of confidence in the last month. The swing changes are really starting to pay off, and I'm excited about the rest of the season."

Yesterday, Leonard spent more than an hour hitting balls on the range and chatting with U.S. Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange, who is making a rare start at this week's Kemper. Though the conversation between the two appeared lighthearted and informal, both understand the importance of Leonard finishing the season on a strong note. Strange definitely wants the match-play grinder on Uncle Sam's squad when the team travels to the Belfry (Sutton Coldfield, England) to defend the Ryder Cup in September. After all, Leonard dropped the 45-foot bomb that cemented the U.S. team's rousing comeback in the Sunday singles at the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, Mass.

The top 10 players in both the U.S. and European Ryder Cup points standings qualify automatically, with Strange and European captain Sam Torrance each adding two wild-card picks of their own. Leonard ranks 15th in the standings heading into this week's event, and Strange would obviously love to see Leonard qualify outright, saving him a pick.

"It's a goal, certainly," Leonard said about qualifying for the Ryder Cup. "But if I just continue playing the way I have been, hopefully it will take care of itself."

A victory this week would obviously go a long way toward securing Leonard a spot on Strange's roster. And judging by his torrid play of late and his love affair with Avenel, Leonard looks primed for an uprising.

"It's always nice to come back to a place where I've had success in the past, especially when I'm playing well," Leonard said. "I certainly feel good about this place and this week."

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