Originally created 11/07/97

Leonard can play with the big boys



Justin Leonard gets a kick out of the juxtaposition.

When the MasterCard PGA Grand Slam convenes in 10 days on the southern tip of Kauai, Hawaii's Garden Isle, the four-man field will match the winners of this year's major golf tournaments.

There's Tiger Woods, who set the all-time scoring record at the Masters Tournament.

There's Ernie Els, the strapping South African who wrestled mighty Congressional Country Club for his second U.S. Open title in four years.

There's Davis Love III, yet another long-knocker who broke through for a much-deserved PGA Championship crown.

And then there's Leonard, whose gritty performance at the British Open evoked memories of the Wee Ice Mon himself, Ben Hogan.

"Basically you've got three very powerful players," Leonard said Thursday on a national conference call, "and then there's myself."

When they take the group picture on the first tee, it won't be hard to spot Justin Charles Garret Leonard. He'll be the little guy, the one who at 5-foot-9 gives up at least five inches to each of his competitors.

When they get to their second shots out on the fairway, Leonard will almost surely be away. Easily.

But somewhere along the line, Leonard will make up the difference.

He always does.

"I usually hit first, even growing up," said the 25-year-old from Dallas. "From my earliest days in junior golf, being 15 or 30 yards behind the other guys has never really bothered me."

Apparently not.

He won the U.S. Amateur in 1992 and the NCAA individual title in 1994 while at the University of Texas. He hit the PGA Tour full-time the next year and has never been lower than 22nd on the money list.

Check this year's money list, and you'll find Leonard's name fifth from the top. He pocketed almost $1.6 million, won twice and made a serious run at Woods for Player of the Year honors.

A word here about that topic.

Woods will almost certainly win the award. He was the first golfer in history to crash the $2 million mark in a single season. He won four times, including the Masters.

More than that, he changed the game. He waved his magic driver and gave us Golf-a-palooza. His mere presence on the Tour brought thousands of fans to tournament sites for the first time in their lives.

He did Oprah. He flew an F-16. He pulled down $100 million in endorsement contracts. Face it, Tiger Woods is bigger than golf.

Leonard is not. We're not even sure he's as big as golf.

But, boy, can he play the game.

Take his performance at the four majors this year. Leonard finished seventh in Augusta, first at Royal Troon and second at Winged Foot in the PGA. Only a 36th-place showing at the U.S. Open kept him from one of the all-time noteworthy Slams.

Eleven of Leonard's 16 rounds at the majors were under par. Toss in his fifth-place finish at the '96 PGA and he's placed in the top seven at four of his last five majors.

Woods? Yeah, he torched Augusta National. But he was 19th, 24th and 29th in the other three majors. Four months have passed since his last win. Lately, he's been moaning about how tired he is. At age 21.

Total up Leonard's major finishes (1-7-2-36) and you get 46. Total up Woods' finishes and you get 73.

Both men flopped at the Ryder Cup, so that's a wash.

What does all this mean? It means when we look back years from now at the 1997 golf season, we'll remember it as more than just the Year of the Tiger. Far more.

Ask Leonard who gets his vote for player of the year, and he turns coy.

"I think Ernie, Davis and Tiger all have very good reason to receive votes," he said, "but I'd rather keep that private, if you don't mind."

A pause here. And then a chuckle.

"And no," he added, "I'm not going to vote for myself."

We couldn't blame him if he did.