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The Liberation of Justin Leonard

"I think Justin's parents may be a little mad at us for moving," Amanda told me in San Antonio, and judging by the reaction I got from Nancy Leonard when I asked her about the upcoming move during an interview in the living room of the elder Leonards' house, Amanda may be right. "I only know what I read about it in the papers," she replied, a bit icily.

Leonard is still close to his parents, and he and Amanda spend a lot of time with them, both on the road and in Dallas. But, well—boys do grow up.

Maybe it's pointless for anyone in the age of Tiger, except Tiger himself, to talk about being number one in the world, and Leonard gave the expected demurral when I asked if he thought he could take over the top spot. "My goal is to be the best player that I can be," he said. "Is that number one in the world?I don't know. I certainly feel that I can play at the same level or higher than I have before. And I feel like I can win more major championships and other big tournaments at the highest level."

If this standard "be the best player I can be" response holds true for anyone, it holds true for Leonard. Never blessed with knock-your-socks-off length or other supernatural gifts like the Woodses, Elses and Mickelsons of the world, Leonard has always predicated his game on coaxing maximum advantage from the skills he does have, particularly his short game. His self-control and golf smarts, Hogan-like, may be the best in the game today.

When I asked Leonard to discuss the pivotal moments in his career, he brought up the Phoenix Open in 1996, his second year on Tour. At that point he had not yet won a tournament (later that season he would win the Buick Open), but at Phoenix he got into a two-man play-off with Phil Mickelson, the hometown favorite. "That was the year the tournament finished on Saturday because the Super Bowl was taking place in Tempe on Sunday. Even in normal years, the Phoenix Open is known for the fans having a good time. The people there drink a little bit. But this year there were 150,000 fans on the course, if you can imagine that, and all but maybe eight of them were rooting for Phil." Amid the uproar, Leonard somehow managed to match Mickelson's birdie and par on the first two play-off holes and to par the third before losing when Mickelson rolled in a birdie putt. Leonard was proud of his performance: "I proved a lot to myself in just those three holes. After that, I knew I didn't have to let anything bother me."

In the six years since, Mickelson with his flamboyant talent has gone on to win twenty-one times on Tour. Leonard has won only seven times, but it is he, not Mickelson, who has a major title on his résumé. Leonard is anything but flashy, even post-Transition, but he seems happier, freer and more comfortable in his skin than he has ever been. Assuming his ambition remains keen, it will be interesting in the years ahead to see what he can accomplish.


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