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The Liberation of Justin Leonard

Though Leonard is one of the shortest hitters among golf's elite, gaining distance was not one of his primary objectives in seeking help from Harmon. Since turning pro, Leonard has caught up with the pack, if not the leaders, in terms of length. He began working out regularly in the mid-1990s to increase his strength and, after being one of the last players to give up a wooden driver in 1997, has benefited significantly from using big-headed drivers and the latest two-piece balls. Last year his drives averaged 278.7 yards, which ranked him 119th on Tour, essentially average given how distances in the middle of the field bunch up. In driving accuracy, however, Leonard ranked twenty-fourth, and his overall driving rank (a combination of distance and accuracy) was twenty-ninth—well ahead of such famously long drivers of the ball as Phil Mickelson (thirty-ninth) and Davis Love III (fifty-third). Moreover, as Randy Smith pointed out, distance stats are becoming increasingly irrelevant because so many Tour players these days use fairway woods and two-irons off the tee. Since Leonard can hit his driver as accurately as most players hit those clubs, he is usually as long off the tee as he needs to be. True, Leonard can't overpower the longest holes the way the bombers can, but that doesn't seem to be holding him back: Last year he ranked tenth on Tour in scoring average on par fives.

Leonard's ability to keep the ball in the fairway is one reason he fares so well in major championships. Last year he posted top-twenty finishes in all four majors—the only American to do so—and was in contention on the final day at both the British Open (he finished three shots back) and the PGA, where he held a three-shot lead going into the final round. His third-round sixty-nine at the PGA, achieved despite winds approaching 35 m.p.h., was one of the grittiest rounds of the year: He was one of only three players in the field to break par that day, and the only one under seventy. Unfortunately, on Sunday, he shot seventy-seven—a disappointment Leonard is still at a loss to explain.

"My strength in 2002 was definitely my consistency, day-to-day and week-to-week," he told me. "As for weaknesses, I would say it was my play on Sundays. Maybe I was trying to do a little too much. But I feel like I could have won three or four golf tournaments: the PGA, the British Open, the Canadian Open, where I lost in a play-off." His lone victory in 2002 was at the WorldCom Classic. For the year he finished eighth on the money list with $2.7 million.

Riding the momentum of the transition to Harmon, plus perhaps the momentum and security of his relationship with Amanda, Leonard has made a raft of other golf-related changes as well. He fired his longtime caddie, tried out a replacement in 2001 before parting with him, and then hired veteran looper Brent Everson for 2002. Thus far, both men seem happy with the relationship. Leonard also changed agents in 2001, recently switched balls and started using Amanda as his chief logistics coordinator instead of his mother.

He gave me a quick tour of his house. Upstairs was a small but fully equipped, mirror-walled gym and a trophy room. The downstairs was built for easy living: The large, central counter kitchen opens onto a patio featuring a miniature "plunge" pool, a whirlpool, an outdoor fireplace and an enormous grill, which Leonard claims to have gotten significantly more skilled at since Amanda came into his life. "One of the things I have really learned in the last two to three years is how to relax when I'm at home," he said. "I've learned how to leave my golf game at the course, which actually makes me that much more ready to play the next time I go out to a tournament."

One of the most striking things about Leonard's house is its almost eerie similarity to his parents' house six blocks away. Both are new constructions, and although Leonard's house is finished in Mediterranean style and his parents' is more traditional, the layouts are almost identical, including the plunge-pool patios. Leonard moved into his house shortly after he met Amanda, a little more than two years ago, but his parents had worked with him on its design and decoration for years. Now, however, Leonard and Amanda are building a new house for themselves in a rustic gated community featuring a Tom Fazio golf course in Tarrant County, about twenty miles from Dallas.


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