ATLANTA Four weeks ago, Marc Leishman looked like a long shot to become the only PGA Tour rookie to qualify for the Tour Championship. Or earn more than $1 million in prize money. Or become the favorite to win rookie of the year.
What a difference a month makes.
After missing the cut in the FedEx Cup playoff opener at Liberty National, Leishman found himself on the brink of playoff elimination at the Deutsche Bank Championship until he eagled his 72nd hole to tie for 15th. He slid into the third playoff event, the BMW at Cog Hill in Chicago, where he finished tied for second behind Tiger Woods to climb to 16th in the points standings and easily qualify for East Lake.
For Leishman, the sudden turnaround didn't come from a swing tip or a pair of lucky socks. He says the breakthrough was simply the result of adjusting to life on the PGA Tour.
"It's just feeling comfortable, being out here for almost a year, and starting to get used to my surroundings," he said. "I feel like I belong. It's been close all year. It's just a gradual process. There wasn't a moment where I was like, 'Yeah, I'm ready.' I've felt ready all year."
The 25-year-old Australian picked a pretty good time to catch fire, as the prize money ratchets up during the FedEx Cup playoffs. A closer look at Leishman's season reveals signs that a breakthrough was approaching all along. He made 10 of 11 cuts heading into the playoffs, highlighted by a tie for fifth at the Texas Open and a tie for eighth at the Byron Nelson.
But it was two weeks ago at Cog Hill when things got really interesting. Tiger Woods ran away from the field, but Leishman was near the top of the leader board all weekend. Entering the final round, he trailed Woods by seven shots, which was good enough for second place and a final-group date with Tiger. Leishman considers that afternoon the highlight of his rookie season.
"I was walking down the first fairway talking to my caddie, and I said to him, 'This is what we play for last group, Sunday, playing with Tiger,' " he said. "I tried to talk to Tiger a lot [during the round], just to realize that he's a normal bloke. I have a whole lot of respect for him, but at the end I'm still trying to beat him, so I've got to treat him as another person."
Although he never threatened Woods's Sunday lead, Leishman held up well under the spotlight while firing a bogey-free 69. Tiger apparently noticed. As Woods approached the 18th green with the tournament in the bag and the gallery standing in applause, Woods hung back for his playing partner.
Says Leishman: "He waited for me, shook my hand, and told me, 'Congratulations on making the Tour Championship. You deserve it.' "
By making it to the FedEx Cup finale, Leishman qualified for the first three majors of 2010 (with Pebble Beach and St. Andrews joining Augusta National on the docket, that's a pretty good draw), and the T2 earned him a cool $660,000. One month ago, Leishman was the 208th-ranked player in the world. Today he's No. 112, and 47th on the money list with more than $1.6 million. He leads Jeff Klauk by more than $500,000 in the race for winnings among first-year players, which makes him the odds-on favorite for rookie of the year.
Leishman is a new millionaire, but you wouldn't know it from speaking with him. To borrow one of his expressions, he seems like a pretty good bloke. He's your stereotypical laid-back Aussie, hailing from a coastal town called Warrnambool, which is about a three-hour drive from Melbourne. He has a quiet confidence mixed with just enough youthful enthusiasm to freely tell you that the whole PGA Tour thing is pretty cool.
"You get really well looked after," he said with a wry smile, and then mentioned the iPod waiting for him in his locker, and the spanking new BMW X5 courtesy car he's rolling this week. Later, at the players' lunch buffet, he chomps into a chocolate chip cookie and marvels at an unexpected brownie layer in the center.
"This is all pretty good."
And so Leishman has arrived. While he's still grinding to get his first PGA tournament win, his life off the course has fallen into place. Shortly after playing the Masters next spring, he'll marry his fiancée, Audrey Hills. The couple doesn't get back to Australia much, but they've happily settled in Virginia Beach. Clearly a man at peace, Leishman is pleased with his rookie year on the PGA tour as the season hits the home stretch.
"Keeping my card would have been a good year. Finishing in the top 70 would have been a good year. But getting into the Tour Championship has made it a great year."