Thankful Justin Leonard powers U.S. surge

Thankful Justin Leonard powers U.S. surge

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Justin Leonard didn’t need any dramatics this time.

Instead, the hero of the U.S. team’s last Ryder Cup win played steadily spectacular golf that powered the United States’ surprising opening day at Valhalla.

The Texan earned the first two wins of his Cup career Friday, teaming with rookie Hunter Mahan to sweep their foursome and four-ball matches as the Americans surged to a 5 1/2-2 1/2 lead over Europe.

For Leonard, whose 45-foot putt clinched the Americans’ dramatic win in 1999, the day was a reminder that playing in the Ryder Cup is something to be enjoyed, not endured.

“I think I appreciate it much more this year than I did in ’97 or ’99,” Leonard said.

Back then, Leonard thought “the Ryder Cup will be my deal for awhile.”

Instead the 1997 British Open champion went nine long years before earning another spot on the team. Stepping onto the first tee with the kind of nerves that only playing on golf’s biggest team stage can provide, the joy of playing in the Cup and everything that comes along with it returned.

“I didn’t know how much I missed it until getting back here,” Leonard said.

He played like a man making up for lost time.

Leonard and Mahan crawled out of an early deficit to route Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey in the morning foursomes. They dropped the first two holes, but took the lead for good with an eagle on the par-5 seventh as Casey and Stenson tumbled.

“I told Hunter I lost the first two holes for us on purpose,” Leonard joked. “I think losing the first two relaxed me some and we started hitting some good shots.”

The duo never trailed the rest of the day.

They closed out Stenson and Casey 3 and 2 and wasted little time taking control against Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez. Mahan birdied the first hole to give them the lead, and Leonard followed at the par-3 third with a brilliant shot that rolled within an inch of an ace.

A slip at No. 7 helped the Europeans close within one, but Leonard was at his best on the back nine. A birdie at the 12th pushed the lead to 2-up and he exulted after rolling in a lengthy birdie to take the 15th.

It wasn’t quite the pandemonium that ensued after he stunned the Europeans at Brookline in ’99, but Leonard knows there’s still plenty of work to be done if the United States is going to snap its three-Cup losing streak.

The duo worked so well together U.S. captain Paul Azinger decided to send them back out again on Saturday morning. They’ll take on Angel Jimenez and Graeme McDowell in the foursomes.

Leonard’s veteran presence seemed to calm his rookie partner, and after one day playing in the spotlight, Mahan sounded like a Cup veteran.

“I feel like I’m good enough to be here,” Mahan said.

The same goes for Leonard, who even cracked a smile from time to time. A rarity for a player known for his sometimes chilly nature.

“My cheeks are sore from smiling all day long,” he said. “This was a lot different than my other Ryder Cup experiences.”

Maybe, except for one thing: the United States is winning. Again.

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