Questions with ... Justin Leonard

Questions with … Justin Leonard

Justin Leonard has been on two winning Ryder Cup teams.
Robert Beck/SI

How much did you miss the Ryder Cup and how sweet was it to get back there in 2008?
It was a lot of fun. I had missed it quite a bit. I think I realized going into the event how much I missed it. For those three or four teams I didn’t make, it was obviously disappointing, but until I was back there playing in 2008 I don’t think I realized how much I missed it.

What’s the best part of playing for the Ryder Cup? Is it the intensity? The competition? Playing for your country?
It’s just being able to come together with guys that — while we’re peers — we’re trying to beat each other every week. And to be able to pull together and play practice rounds and really root for each other is a lot of fun and that’s something I missed. The second thing is the intensity of the competition. To be able to play on that stage is something that very few people get to do. Early in my career on the teams that I made, ’97, ’99, I was so nervous and trying so hard that I didn’t perform as well. Last time — because I was out of it and I appreciated it more — I was going to enjoy the experience no matter what and because of that I played better, a lot better.

You’ve been on two winning sides (1999 and 2008) and one losing side (1997). What’s the recipe for Ryder Cup success?
In the end it comes down to guys just playing well and finding the right pairings. I think the captain plays a big part in setting the tone for the week. In 2008 with Zinger, we had a lot of input as far as pairings went. He put us into our little groups and within those groups we made up our own pairings. Because we took some ownership in that, it made us all a lot closer.

After missing a short putt that cost the U.S. team a point in the opening round of the 2009 Presidents Cup, you downed five fake vodka shots as a prank. What would happen if you actually drank five shots of vodka?
[Laughs] I’m not sure because I would not remember it.

The next day you played with Phil Mickelson and made some really big putts. How do you get your confidence back so quickly?
Just experience. Going through the career valleys I’ve been through and being able to come back. I rely on those experiences and I tell myself that I’m not going to let a couple missed putts ruin the week. I just told myself quite a few times that being able to come back from that disappointment on Thursday would be something I could really learn from and maybe some other guys on the team might draw some inspiration from it as well.

How did you become friends with Phil?
We’ve known each other since we were 15 or 16 years old. We played a few college events together and our wives are good friends. About six years ago we started playing practice rounds together here and there. Since then, we have been on a few family trips together. We’ve skied together. I think Phil’s a fascinating person. He’s very intelligent. But he’s a guy’s guy too. He likes to be in the locker room and hang out and give guys a hard time. I seem to have his number a little bit and he likes that. He likes the grief and banter that goes back and forth. Some guys are hesitant to give it to him or talk to him that much, but I’m right in his kitchen. [Laughs.]

What would surprise people about Phil?
I think some people have the impression that he’s not very sincere. The fact is that he cares a lot. He does not always show that but he’s very sincere and he’s a great father and a great husband.

You have 12 Tour wins, you’ve won a major [the 1997 British Open], you played on two winning Ryder Cup sides and you made one of the most famous putts in golf history at the 1999 Ryder Cup. What more do you need to accomplish to have a bulletproof hall-of-fame resume?
I don’t know. I don’t know what it takes to make the hall of fame and it’s not something that really drives me. I know if one day if I’m included it will be an honor but it’s not something that drives me. I’ve heard guys from other sports at this stage of their career that I am at in mine and that’s all they talk about, getting into the hall of fame. Baseball players, for sure.

Cooperstown feels like a bigger deal than Jacksonville.
Maybe so. The history of the World Golf Hall of Fame is pretty short and I certainly think that’s part of it.

What drives you to keep going to the gym and staying on top of the latest equipment and technology trends?
Playing on Ryder Cup teams and Presidents Cup teams, realizing how special those weeks are and how much I want to make those teams and be successful at those events. I’d love to get in contention more often at majors. I feel like through my experience in the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup that if I’m able to get myself in contention than I’ll succeed. Part of it is working hard for my kids to see. And wanting to play well for them. I didn’t know my wife when I won the Open Championship in 1997. I’d like her to be there for a major victory and experience that with her.

Are there any young players who remind you of a young Justin Leonard?
No, they’re all a lot better than I was [laughs]. The game has changed quite a bit. Most of the young players who come out are 140 lbs and hit it 320 yards. The game has changed a lot. There aren’t a whole lot of Justin Leonards out there.

Davis Love III was a mentor to you when you came on Tour. Do you have a mentor relationship with any of the young guys on Tour?

There are some young Tour players and college players whom I’ve talked to and some Tour players I’ve practiced with. Colt Knost is one player who’s willing to listen and ask questions. I enjoy playing that role. A great example is at the Ryder Cup in 2008 with Hunter Mahan. He had great experience but not as much on that stage. I was able to play three matches with him and talk to him about situations in the matches and really just try to keep him relaxed. Because that’s the biggest thing for a young player, to stay relaxed and say, “You know, it really is just a golf tournament.” It’s really hard to think that way when you’re at an event like that in that atmosphere. To be able to play with Hunter, and play a very small role in his development, was a lot of fun.

The atmosphere at the Ryder Cup in Brookline in 1999 was off the charts. What was it like in the eye of the storm?
[The atmosphere] in 2008 was close to it because we hadn’t won in so long. And being in Kentucky, which is not a place we visit every year, the fans were unbelievable that week. But in 1999, I can remember the intensity of that last day, winning the first seven matches and being able to make that comeback on the golf course late on Sunday.

When you see highlights from that Sunday comeback and your long putt on 17, do you ever wish you were wearing a different shirt?
No, that shirt kind of brought it all together, didn’t it? [Laughs].

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