Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

Justin Time-Leonard Defends at the Buick
by Tom Cleary

Remember the old paper boy you used to see every morning, who all of a sudden one day returned home as a doctor or a fighter pilot? If you do, you can relate to how some folks in Dallas must feel every time they see little Justin Leonard. Only a few years removed from the days when he wasn't much longer than a Rocky Thompson driver, Leonard returns to the Buick Open this month as both defending champion and one of the top players in all of golf.

Though his name isn't mentioned much in the same context as the likes of Nicklaus, Woods and Mickelson, Leonard's amateur record was nearly as haughty. In 1994 he became the NCAA champion by tying Mickelson's record score of two years earlier. Prior to that he won four consecutive Southwest Conference championships as well as the 1992 U.S. Amateur. That last triumph finally opened the eyes of the skeptics who felt Justin might be too short or not strong enough to find success on the PGA Tour. His victory in the final at Muirfield Village in Columbus, Ohio, proved Leonard had what it takes to win on man-sized golf courses.

As if those accomplishments weren't enough, Leonard's pre-professional days included an appearance in '93 on the Walker Cup team as well as a pair of Western Amateur titles. Looking back, last year's victory at Warwick Hills was probably a walk in the park compared to Justin's wins at Pointe O'Woods in 1992 and 1993, where he had to fight through four rounds of qualifying and six more rounds in match play before emerging victorious. In most years the Western Am and the Buick Open are played during one of the hottest single weeks of Michigan's summer, and in retrospect it should come as no surprise that the 5'9" Leonard would be able to outlast his bigger opponents under such difficult conditions.

Last year in Grand Blanc Leonard came out of the gate at Warwick Hills blazing, posting a 36-hole score of 129 on rounds of 65 and 64. Rick Fehr and Jim Carter loomed as threats, two and three shots behind respectively, but both failed to gain ground on Saturday as Leonard fashioned a 69, his worst round of the week. On Sunday, it looked like Dave Stockton, Jr. might be able to put some heat on Justin, having reduced his deficit from six shots to three with a third-round 66. But Stockton could do no better than an even par 72 in the final round, leaving Leonard plenty of cushion over the final nine holes. Playing carefully and without a lot of daring, the 24-year-old Texan breezed around in a closing 68, which was good enough for a five-shot margin over Chip Beck.

Since then, Leonard has been dangerous most every time he's teed it up. One mark of his rapidly maturing game was his performance the three weeks immediately following his first pro victory at the Buick. In his next start at the PGA Championship, he finished only two shots out of the playoff that saw Mark Brooks prevail over Kenny Perry, and he stayed in high gear at altitude the next week at the International in Colorado, where he tied for fifth with Tom Lehman. After that, he blew back into the Midwest like a Texas twister, where only a final round 74 cost him a chance for his fourth straight top-ten finish in August. Total money take for the four-week blitz: $399,197. For the year, he finished eleventh in PGA Tour earnings, ahead of such players as Els, Norman, Singh, Steve Jones and yes, even Tiger Woods.

Leonard returns to Michigan this year with the look of a player who's about to blow the roof off. His win at the Kemper just before the U.S. Open was his second as a pro, and a solid showing at Congressional proved again this guy isn't one to go into hiding after hitting the victory circle. If his form of a year ago holds true his title defense at Warwick Hills will be a spirited one.

Now 25, Justin Leonard probably still has days when he has to prove to locker room guards he's not just a starry eyed autograph hound. But make no mistake of it -- with a couple of million now in the bank -- he's no paper boy, either.

But that doesn't mean he can't deliver this year at the Buick. In fact, he might just be the front-page news all over again.


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