Originally created 05/28/98

Leonard emerging as world-class player

DUBLIN, Ohio -- A year ago, Justin Leonard was one of many good young golfers in an impressively deep talent pool on the PGA Tour. This year, Leonard comes into the Memorial Tournament regarded as one of the best players in the world.

Since leaving the rain-shortened Memorial with a 46th-place finish 12 months ago, Leonard has won the Kemper Open, the British Open and the Players Championship.

He has also finished second in the PGA Championship, second this year at Tucson and eighth in the Masters.

Through it all, the 25-year-old Texan has remained remarkably unchanged -- a hopeful sign that he will continue to add to his growth as a player.

"I don't think I'm very different as a person," Leonard said Wednesday at Muirfield Village on the eve of the first round of the Memorial.

"My expectations are a little higher, but they were high before," he said. "My confidence is higher."

Leonard has good reason for confidence. He came from five strokes back on the final day last July to win the British Open, then came from five back again in the last round to win this year's Players Championship.

Forget about good young players, forget even about great young players. Now when the talk turns to who the best players are in the world, Leonard's name comes up very quickly.

Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and Davis Love III -- all in the field this week for the Memorial -- Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie are the only players whose names appear above Leonard's in the World Golf Rankings.

"I enjoy being put in that category," Leonard said. "There are a lot of good young players out there winning tournaments and that speaks well for the future of the PGA Tour."

Leonard, who came onto the PGA Tour fulltime in 1995 and got two second-place finishes that year, picked up his first victory in the Buick Open in August 1996, just a few weeks before Woods turned pro.

And since Woods emerged on tour, Leonard has almost kept pace with the biggest name in golf, winning four times to Woods' seven and each picking up a major championship.

Over the last 12 months, Leonard has had a better record, winning three times to twice for Woods and finishing first in one major and second in another while Woods has not seriously contended in a major since winning the Masters last year.

Leonard, who stalks the course with a serious look on his face, peering out from under a hat emblazoned with "Hogan" and pulled down almost to his eyes, is almost as sparse with words as the man whose name is on his equipment.

He won the British Open by calmly making every putt he needed to make on the final day and his only show of emotion came when he twice had to stop to compose himself during his victory speech.

If Leonard every decides to leave golf, he might want to consider playing cards for a living as his next profession. The grim-faced Texan's poker face is so well known that even Leonard can make light of it.

Asked a question he clearly didn't think was a very good question or at least one he wanted to have no part answering, Leonard just stared at the questioner.

"You don't like the idea?" the questioner asked, trying to get a response.

"This is my blank look," Leonard said without cracking a smile.

Blank may the the look Leonard keeps on his face, but the kind of golf he has played the last 12 months has certainly turned heads.


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