- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

Marc Leishman is living the underdog dream.

A year ago, Leishman was a struggling Nationwide Tour extra. Next week, the 25-year-old Australian will tee it up at the Tour Championship looking to cement his status as the PGA Tour’s rookie of the year.

Leishman finished tied for second behind Tiger Woods at last week’s BMW Championship and vaulted from 67th to 16th in the FedEx Cup points standings, securing a spot in the 30-man field at East Lake and earning automatic invites to next season’s first three majors.

“It’s been an unbelievable run,” he said. “To know I’m in the Tour Championship now and the Masters, you know, it’s pretty hard to wipe the smile off my face.”

Leishman’s magical roll actually began 11 months ago in Midland, Texas, where he arrived at the 27th of 30 Nationwide Tour events buried well down the circuit’s money list with time running out on his first full season in the United States. Occupying the 40th slot on a tour that sends only its top 25 to the PGA Tour the following season, Leishman needed something to jump-start a torrid finishing kick.

That catalyst arrived in the form of a relentless West Texas gale. When you’re raised in Warrnambool, a coastal town of 30,000 inhabitants about 150 miles southwest of Melbourne, you either learn to cope with a four-club wind or you take up another sport. While routine gusts between 30 and 35 mph blew away the rest of the field at the WNB Golf Classic, Leishman lashed his way to a Nationwide Tour-tying 11-stroke victory. He closed out the season with three more strong weeks (tied for 55th, tied for 11th, tied for seventh) to finish 19th on the Nationwide money list and earn a rather inconspicuous promotion to the PGA Tour.

A long hitter and excellent iron player who struggles with driving accuracy and occasionally with the putter, Leishman’s rookie season between the ropes with the big boys was progressing quietly before a pair of timely finishes at the Reno-Tahoe Open (tied for 14th) and Wyndham Championship (tied for 17th) locked him into the playoffs.

Just as he did last year, Leishman saved his best for last, narrowly playing his way into the BMW field (the top 70) by tying for 15th at the Deutsche Bank. And then he exploded from obscurity to a berth in next week’s Tour Championship by posting four rounds in the 60s at Cog Hill (67-69-68-69), including a bogey-free finale in the last group with Woods.

“Just to play with him was awesome. … For my first time playing in a group with Tiger, I was really happy with how it went,” said Leishman, who like many young players was inspired to commit himself to golf after watching Woods win the 1997 Masters. “The Masters was in April. The club championships at Warrnambool was in October. I actually won the club championships as a 13-year-old. I guess he had a bit to do with that, just to know that he was only 21 and he’s playing against guys who are so much more experienced, and he goes out and does that.

“It’s like, ‘Well, if he can do that, I’m only 13. Why can’t I go out and beat all these blokes?’ ”

A dozen years later, that attitude has elevated Leishman into elite company. Not only is he guaranteed to make his first three major starts on sacred ground next season at Augusta National, Pebble Beach (U.S. Open) and St. Andrews (British Open), he will be the only rookie in the field next week at East Lake.

Midway through the season, North Carolina native Webb Simpson and fellow Aussie James Nitties looked to be the rookie of the year favorites. But Leishman owns more top-25 finishes (eight) than any other rookie, and he likely clinched the honor with last week’s finish and the resulting spoils. Even the world No. 1 noticed Leishman’s recent surge.

“Walking up the last, [Tiger] came over and he said, ‘Congratulations,’ ” Leishman said. “He was really happy for me for getting in the Tour Championship. I’m obviously saying to him, ‘Well done for winning.’ But for him to say that to me was I thought really good, and it shows what a great bloke he is.”

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