Leonard returns to U.S. team after 9 years

September 15, 2008

DALLAS, Texas — Justin Leonard, returning to the U.S. Ryder Cup team after a nine-year absence, said the American captain Paul Azinger is taking a less-is-more strategy in hopes of gaining the first victory since Leonard last made the team in 1999.

The Texas native gave a preview of the Americans’ plans as they attempt to win after enduring 18 1/2 – 9 1/2 losses in the 2006 and 2004 Ryder Cups.

“The biggest thing Paul decided is what was most important was getting rest before the Ryder Cup. I was really tired after last week [of FedEx Cup play], and I know a lot of the guys were, so we needed to rest up.

“That’s why he decided not to do those things.”

The things Leonard was referring to included advance team trips to the course for scouting purposes, early team dinners and group-bonding sessions, as well as a departure ceremony at the White House, a grip-and-grin opportunity for assorted politicians.

“We’ve done that before and don’t need to do that [again]. All I have to do is show up Monday afternoon and be ready to go. I played there [Valhalla] in the PGA in 1996 and 2000, so I know what to expect.”

While the American team has not won a Ryder Cup since Leonard supplied the winning putt in the 1999 comeback at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., Leonard said he’s not the missing piece to the U.S. puzzle.

“I don’t think being there would have affected those matches in the past, but I can make a difference now. Some of the guys haven’t been there when we’ve won. I have. We have to embrace the underdog role this week, which means we don’t have anything to lose, we can be more aggressive, more loose and free.”

There are four North Texas-based players on this year’s American team — Leonard, Chad Campbell, Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan — a quarter of the squad. Leonard says he tried to help the two Texas rookies, Kim and Mahan, know what’s coming.

“It’s one of the few places I can think of where you’re actually nervous during a practice round. You stand on the first tee and see 15,000 lining the fairways for a practice round, and it’s pretty cool.”

He said Kim’s two victories this year, the Wachovia Championship and the AT&T National, should prepare him for the Ryder Cup frenzy.

“He won two big events, so you know he enjoys the big spotlight.”

Mahan, who gained more attention for his controversial remarks in Golf Magazine about dreading the Ryder Cup festivities than for his recent play, will be getting special attention from Leonard.

“His talent level is amazing, so I think he will hold up under the pressure. He’s pretty laid back, which should serve him well, but some of the older guys will take him under their wing. The biggest thing is, he just hasn’t been there yet.”

Leonard and Mahan could form an early pairing as they have known each other for decades, having both played junior golf in the Northern Texas PGA. With his return to the Ryder Cup stage, Leonard said he’s not able to forget his past heroics — even if he wanted to.

“I don’t even have to pull out my tape, it’s on so much these days. It’s probably mentioned 10-1 over my British Open.”

Leonard said the absence of Tiger Woods could work both ways for the U.S. team.

“Well, it’s never helpful to lose the No. 1 player in the world, especially on your team, but his absence just confirms we are underdogs and we have to play like it. I doubt he will be there, but you can’t worry about the outcome. Just embrace the experience.”