Nine years after the fact, Justin Leonard can barely play in a tournament without someone in the gallery bringing up the last great moment in U.S. Ryder Cup history. It happened again on Sunday during a steamy final day — even the statue of Cary Middlecoff was sweating — at the Stanford St. Jude Championship in Memphis as Leonard was trying to win an event that would all but ensure his return to the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999, when he made the dramatic 45-foot putt that clinched the Cup and set off a stampede on the 17th green at Brookline.
“I heard it two or three times today,” Leonard said of the handful of Memphians who recalled his historic putt. “Ninety-five percent [of the comments] are Ryder Cup.”
After Leonard’s playoff victory over Masters champ Trevor Immelman and Robert Allenby of Australia at TPC Southwind — Leonard rolled in a 19-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole — he can expect to play in the biennial matches at Valhalla in Louisville in September, either by qualifying (he moved from 12th to fifth in the points standings) or by securing one of captain Paul Azinger’s four wild-card picks.
Back together with his childhood swing coach, Randy Smith, Leonard looked a lot like the player who won the ’97 British Open at Troon by keeping his shots under the wind, finding the short grass and making a mile of putts. At Southwind, where he took his 12th career PGA Tour title, Leonard reminded the masses that there is still room in the game for shot makers and short hitters, at least at tournaments without blue blazers and green jackets.
Leonard even hit four-wood off the tee on some holes, sacrificing distance in the name of accuracy and leaning on his shorter clubs to score. Though the victory was an ideal way to head into the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Leonard was especially ecstatic about the prospect of teeing it up in the Ryder Cup, which has been dominated by the Europeans since Brookline.
“I don’t know how much of a lock I am, but I feel pretty good about making it,” he said. “After you get drummed enough times, it’s time to get it turned around, and I look forward to being a part of that.”
Leonard had little choice but to think about the Ryder Cup while playing at Southwind. In the first two rounds he was paired with Kenny Perry, who probably punched his Ryder Cup ticket a week earlier by winning the Memorial. Perry recalled Azinger’s statement about wanting winners to make up the American squad, and “those words were with me this week,” said Leonard, who shot a final-round 68 for a four-under 268 total.
With Leonard aboard, is it possible that the U.S. finally has the one ingredient it’s been missing in three straight Ryder Cup defeats?
“Absolutely,” Leonard said with a laugh. “I can’t believe you’re the first person to bring that up.”