LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The scene was familiar on Saturday. A crucial putt in the Ryder Cup. The 17th green. A delicious cocktail of pressure and fate. Justin Leonard. Only the place and the date were different.
It wasn’t an unexpected 45-footer this time, like it was at Brookline nine years ago. This time, it was just a little more than 12 feet. The whole Ryder Cup wasn’t on the line, either, but his foursomes match was, and with it hung the possibility of a European turnaround that could negate America’s big day Friday.
One thing was exactly the same; this putt also went in. It proved to be pretty big. The birdie gave Leonard and Hunter Mahan a 1-up lead, their first of the foursomes match, against Miguel Angel Jimenez and Graeme McDowell. It loomed even larger when Mahan’s drive caught the bunker on the 18th and the Europeans won the hole with a clutch birdie to salvage a hard-earned halve.
The Ryder Cup is about scratching and clawing for every half-point. They’re all important, but no matter the outcome this weekend, this one may loom large in the rear-view mirror. The Europeans were close to taking three out of four morning matches and closing the gap after their first Black Friday in years. The Americans were close to earning a split and blunting the Euro comeback.
Leonard, the man of the match in ’99, was the man of the moment Saturday morning. He’d just holed a clutch birdie putt at the 15th and another crucial par putt at the 16th. The putt at 17 gave the U.S. the lead and the guarantee of at least half a point. With a 2-0-1 mark as partners thus far, Leonard and Mahan, fellow Texans, are the leading candidates to be the men of the matches. It’s a wonderful second chance for Leonard, whose game slipped in the early part of this decade, and he is making the most of it. He is also having a blast.
“I’m enjoying the week more this time around,” Leonard said. “I appreciate it much more than I did in ’97 or ’99. After I made a couple of teams in a row, I kind of thought, well, the Ryder Cup will be my deal for a while. Well, It hasn’t been. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I got back here this week.
“I’m having more fun this week. Maybe that’s because I’m playing better. I think it’s because I haven’t been here in nine years and golf is no longer the most important thing in my life. I’ve got a family, I’ve got my faith, and I’m enjoying this. I felt pressure this week, but not the knee-shaking, heart-stopping pressure I felt in ’97 and ’99 because this was the singular most important thing in my life. I’ve been able to enjoy this week.”
At 36, after getting back together with his old coach and rediscovering his game this year, he’s enjoying himself. Leonard hadn’t won a Ryder Cup match until this week. Now he’s 2-2-3 in three Cups.
Leonard’s match got serious at the 15th hole, a squirrelly par 4 with water guarding the right side of the green. Mahan stuck his approach in close, six feet from the hole, and then Jimenez played a sand wedge shot that nearly went in for an eagle. His ball stopped three feet from the cup. It was assumed that McDowell would make the birdie, which he did, so Leonard knew he needed to make the six-footer. He did.
The 16th was also big. Leonard hit his hybrid approach into the greenside bunker, and Mahan splashed out to eighth feet. Leonard made the putt and McDowell holed a five-footer for par to halve the hole and keep the match all square.
At 17, Leonard’s drive unluckily bounced into a fairway bunker, but Mahan played a terrific shot to 15 feet. McDowell missed a longer birdie putt from the fringe before Leonard made the big putt to guarantee at least half a point.
“It was fun making those putts at 15, 16 and 17,” Leonard admitted. “I would have loved to have made the one at 18, too, but it was a pretty hard-earned half-point. Seeing as we won 17 and lost 18, it was a good halve. Both sides played well.”
After Leonard’s display of clutch putting, it was a mild surprise that he and Mahan didn’t go back out in four-ball play Saturday afternoon. Mahan was paired instead with Phil Mickelson. Leonard’s putts happened after captain Paul Azinger submitted his afternoon pairings, but Leonard said a rest might be a good thing anyway.
“I told Zinger I felt like I had more in the tank, I just wasn’t sure how much more,” Leonard said. “He wants me to be ready for Sunday. I know Phil really wanted to play this afternoon, and Hunter, as well as he’s playing, wanted to play as well. I told Zinger if he needed me to go, I’d go, and if he needed me to sit, I’d sit. That’s why we pay him the big bucks.”
Saturday, Leonard did his part. It was a familiar one.