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The Liberation of Justin Leonard

Last fall, on Wednesday of the week that all the other best players in the world were set to compete at the Ryder Cup in England, Justin Leonard sat on a director's chair in a San Antonio parking lot having a little fun. "Those weren't just pretty bad clothes," he spoke into the camera during a live remote for Fox Sports' Best Damn Sports Show Period, "those were really bad clothes." It was impossible to hear what the show's hosts were saying to Leonard through his headset, but whatever it was caused a wry grin to tug at the corners of his mouth. Then came a quick laugh. "Well," he replied, "that's because most of the guys on the Ryder Cup team don't take showers."

There are two anomalies about this scene. The first is that Leonard was in San Antonio at all, rather than in England at the Ryder Cup. Yes, he was happy to be defending his title at the Valero Texas Open. But his world ranking at the moment was better than that of sixteen of the twenty-four players competing at The Belfry, and he is widely regarded as one of this country's toughest competitors—a comeback kid. At the 1999 Ryder Cup matches in Brookline, he had been the hero, charging from four behind with seven to play in his final-day singles match against Jose Maria Olazabal to clinch the cup for the American side with a colossal forty-five-foot birdie putt on the seventeenth green. The second anomaly is that Leonard, whose image in the public mind ranges from remote to reserved, was not just allowing himself to be interviewed on TV's most irreverent sports program but was having no trouble being silly.

These two anomalies are not unrelated. The reason Leonard wasn't competing at The Belfry was that in 2001, when the Ryder Cup rosters were made and then frozen after September 11, he was in the middle of what might be called Justin's Great Transition. The Transition affected not just his golf game (his world ranking slipped briefly to forty-one, the lowest it had been since his sophomore season as a pro in 1995), but also and even more dramatically it involved his personal life.

Before the Transition, for instance, Leonard had neither a wife nor a dog, but now he had both, and both were agitating near him, just off camera, during the interview. His wife, Amanda, used one of the breaks to try to extract a decision from Leonard about which Italian restaurant to dine at that night; he fluttered his eyelashes at her and joked that no professional chef could possibly boil water and dump pasta into it as brilliantly as she could. Meanwhile the dog, a white Lab named Troon's Magical Sunday (after Leonard's 1997 British Open win), spent most of the interview pawing and muzzling an empty potato-chip bag, despite Amanda's attempts to keep him from it. At various inopportune moments he rose up against his leash and noisily attempted to jump into Leonard's lap, so as to slobber all over his clothes.

Not only did Leonard seem unfazed by these distractions, he seemed delighted by them. When the interview ended, he climbed down from the director's chair, said something to Amanda that made her laugh and picked up Sunday, even though the dog weighs nearly ninety pounds and Leonard, at five-foot-nine, is no giant. Cradled in Leonard's arms like a baby, feet pointing skyward, Sunday was instantly mesmerized. "What a bad, bad dog," Leonard chastised, before slipping into a stream of verbal goo-goo nonsense.

Is this any way for golf's most buttoned-up player to act?

Leonard grew up playing golf at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas. His first bag was an empty Cool Whip container attached by heavy thread to a tube of canvas. On Sunday afternoons when he was five and six, Leonard's parents would plop him down between them on the cart and sneak him out on the course; once safely out of sight of the pro shop, they'd throw down a ball for him to bat around with the five-iron and putter he carried. When he was seven he got a real bag and a set of Little Ben clubs by Hogan, but his early experiences with golf weren't notably different from those of your average country-club brat: He spent a lot of time goofing off at the pool. "We didn't push him in any direction," said his father, Larry, a PhD microbiologist now retired from management at a pharmaceutical company. "We just tried to expose him to as many things as possible and let him decide what was interesting."


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