Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 17, 2013

For Justin Leonard, The Long Wait Gets Longer

The headline out of the PGA Tour’s Tampa Bay Championship was the two-shot victory by Kevin Streelman. Since earning his Tour card at the 2007 Qualifying Tournament the 34-year old Streelman had played in 152 events and never finished better than third. But on Innisbrook Resort’s demanding Copperhead Course Streelman was the class of the field over the weekend. His nine birdies on Thursday and Friday had been offset by an equal number of bogeys, and he teed off in Saturday’s third round at even par, six shots behind rookie Shawn Stefani. Playing like someone who already had multiple Tour victories, Streelman didn’t drop a single shot in his final 36 holes. He raced up the leaderboard with a 6-under 65 on Saturday, and then claimed the championship with another bogey-free round of 4-under 67 on Sunday.

So for Streelman the wait for that often-elusive first Tour win is now over. He played very steady golf on a hard course under Sunday pressure. He struck the shot of the tournament at the 200-yard par-3 13th hole, where he lofted a high fade with an iron that challenged the dangerous far right pin position. The ball cleared the pond and bunkers fronting the green to land safely on the putting surface, finishing just six feet from the hole. The resulting birdie on a hole that most players were happy to escape with pars gave Streelman the outright lead at 9-under. Then for good measure he played “The Snake Pit,” the course’s fiendishly hard three finishing holes in 1-under par. All in all it was a performance that made one think that while he may have waited a long time to finally win a tournament, Kevin Streelman is certainly capable of winning several more before his career is over.

The purses on the PGA Tour have grown so big that one can make a very nice living without ever hearing the roars around the 18th green that are reserved for champions. In his five-plus years of journeyman play prior to this weekend Streelman earned more than $6.3 million. Josh Teater, another career non-winner, began the weekend just one stroke worse than the tournament’s eventual champion. But Teater went in the opposite direction, recording a pair of 77’s on Saturday and Sunday to finish dead last among the seventy-seven players who made the cut. Yet for his troubles he still drove off in his courtesy car with a check for $10,230. Kevin Chappell finished 125th on last year’s money list, the final spot that guarantees a pro a Tour card for the following season without having to go back to Q-School. His earnings for the season were just shy of $650,000, or about $36,000 for each of the eighteen tournaments in which he made the cut and got paid, while not winning.

There are those pros who seem satisfied enough with the lifestyle that making cuts and recording the occasional top-ten finish provides. Certainly there are worse day jobs. Yet winning remains the objective for most of those who tee it up as each week’s event begins on Thursday. As true as that is for players like Streelman who haven’t yet made it to the winner’s circle; surely it is a goal even more desperately sought by those who have known victory in the past. Golfers like Justin Leonard.

Now forty years old, Leonard is in his 19th season on the Tour. He was just twenty-four when he waltzed to a five-stroke victory at the Buick Open in 1996 for his first Tour win. One year later he fired a final round 65 at Royal Troon to come from behind, passing Jesper Parnevik and Darren Clarke to win the Open Championship. To that major he added the next best thing by winning The Players Championship the following spring. Leonard has won twelve times on Tour. He’s also lost five times in playoffs including twice in majors, at the 1999 Open Championship and the 2004 PGA.

For all those wins and the $32 million in career earnings that have accompanied them, Leonard’s best-known moment on a golf course came in an event with no prize money. At the 1999 Ryder Cup, the second of three times he was a member of the U.S. team, Leonard stood over a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th green at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. The U.S. trailed Europe 10-6 at the start of the Sunday singles, apparently headed for certain defeat. But the Americans won the first six matches to surge into the lead. When the match between Leonard and Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabel came to the penultimate hole all-square, the U.S. point total had climbed to 14, meaning that the diminutive Texan needed only to halve his match to complete the improbable comeback. Leonard rolled in the cross-country putt from the front of the green, touching off a wild celebration as American players and their wives raced onto the putting surface.

The outburst was not the finest moment in Ryder Cup history, since Olazabel still had his own 25-footer, which if he had made would have left the match still all-square with one hole to play. But if the reaction was the source of considerable criticism, Leonard’s putt was nothing but pure.

That moment in Massachusetts is well in the past now, as is Justin Leonard’s last win at the 2008 Stanford St. Jude Championship. Over the nearly five years since Leonard has played in 122 Tour events, an ever-increasing number of tournaments without a win that would surely cause any golfer to wonder if victory will ever come his way again. Finally on Sunday he teed off, with Streelman, tied for the lead and playing in the final group of a Tour event’s final round.

For much of the round Leonard matched Streelman shot for shot, even as both of them knew there was no margin for error. Playing well ahead of the leaders, Boo Weekly shot a tournament-best 63 to become the leader in the clubhouse at 8-under par. Still part of a three-way tie with Streelman and Weekly at the 13th, Leonard’s hopes began to come undone at the same hole where the eventual winner made his move to the front. Just before Streelman’s masterful tee shot, Leonard pulled his own iron long and left, over the green. From a bad lie on ground that spectators had trampled down, he did well to get the ball to within twenty feet of the hole. But the putt to save par failed to find the hole, and when Streelman finished his birdie a few moments later Leonard was suddenly two shots adrift. While he rallied with a birdie on the par-5 14th, two more bogeys down the stretch left Leonard in a tie for fourth, four shots behind the winner. The string of futility is now at 123.

Never a long hitter, Justin Leonard’s career has been compromised by the lengthening of golf courses, often to extremes, as the only means of defense against the bombers who now tee it up every week. He’s earned more money than he’ll ever need, and has a wife and children that surely provide him with happiness trophies can’t match. But he remains a professional golfer by trade, one who is still a decade away from being able to reset his career on the Champions Tour. He’s known the roar on the 18th that is reserved for winners multiple times, even in a major and a near-major. He’s heard the roars of an entire country exulting at a magical moment in the history of the game. But on Sunday, as a chance to return first glimmered, then faded away, one couldn’t help but wonder if he will ever hear that roar again.

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