By the time the British Open drew to a close last July, Mike Hulbert, watching from his home in Orlando, had already called Justin Leonard's answering machine three times. Hulbert, 40, is 14 years older than Leonard, yet they are practice partners, road roomies and fishing buddies. Hulbert first called with congratulations when Leonard putted out for a final-round 65 that put him in the lead. He called again 20 minutes later when Jesper Parnevik, who had started the day with a five-stroke edge on Leonard, finished three strokes behind him. Hulbert called a third time because, well, just because.
Then Hulbert saw Leonard do something so extraordinary that he was forced to pick up the phone one more time. This time, Leonard's clutch performance came during die awards ceremony, when he accepted the claret jug. "He pulled out a piece of paper and started thanking everybody," Hulbert says. Think of all the adrenaline surging through a young professional who had just won a major and removed the "someday" stamp from his name. Then imagine him sitting down somewhere, collecting his thoughts and making a list of people he wanted to acknowledge. "He's much more mature than his age," Hulbert says. "He will easily get on the Senior tour when he's 42."
In fact Leonard, who turns 26 on the Monday before the U.S. Open, is barely halfway to the Senior tour. But if maturity isn't the 15th club in Leonard's bag, then patience is. He proved it at Royal Troon last year and again at the Players Championship in March, when he shot a final-round 67 to overtake the best field of the year. It's no coincidence that in the last five majors, Leonard has a first, a second and two other top 10s. No one has a better showing, and no one has played better on Major Sundays.
To paraphrase Bobby Jones's famous comment about Jack Nicklaus, the 5'9", 160-pound Leonard plays a game with which the current Tour is not familiar. The Senior tour, however, knows it quite well: Leonard works the ball. In this era of Tiger and titanium, when length is becoming a necessity rather than a luxury, Leonard rums back the clock to a time before Woods's woods threatened to make some hallowed courses obsolete. He can hit it low, as any good golfer raised in die Texas winds must. He can also hit it left to right and right to left. His game is retro; this is how golf was played before Bertha got big. Like the Japanese soldiers who refused to admit that World War II was over and emerged from the jungle only in the 1970s, Leonard didn't surrender his persimmon driver until last year. He says his conversion to titanium and a rigorous workout program have added yards to his drives. Still, he ranks in the bottom 15% in driving distance.
"He knows his strengths are chipping and putting, and he plays to them," says Harrison Frazar, a boyhood friend who joined Leonard on the Tour this year. Adds Leonard's agent, Vinny Giles, the 1972 U.S. Amateur champion, "He's not going to hit a three-wood 260 yards over water. He knows he can put his ball 85 yards out and hit a wedge closer than somebody else will hit that three-wood and a 70-foot putt." In other words, Giles says, "one of Justin's greatest traits is he knows what he can't do."
Lacking a power game, Leonard turned to creativity. At the Royal Oaks course in Dallas where Frazar and Leonard grew up, the 9th hole is a par-4 dogleg right that requires a 200-yard carry in order to clear a creek. While his buddies pounded their drives into and, eventually, over the creek, Leonard spent his youth hitting right of the water to the area around the 7th green and the 8th tee, then lifting a shot over the trees to the green. To this day Leonard continues to think his way around a course.
The ability to shape shots doesn't carry the cachet it once did on the Tour practice range. On the subject of swings, the world's top golfers can be as gossipy as seventh-graders at a slumber party. So it is said, sotto voce, that Leonard doesn't hit the ball that well. When asked about this bit of gossip, Leonard's eyebrows inch up. "They probably say that because I hit different shots," he says. "I hit it at different heights. If I went out and hit one shot, a five-yard draw or a 10-yard cut, and hit it every time, I'd have respect as a ball striker."
There is, of course, something specious about questioning the swing of a golfer whose three biggest victories came at the TPC at Sawgrass, Royal Troon and Muir-field Village, where Leonard won the 1992 U.S. Amateur. These three courses demand exacting golf, and the players who win there are rarely one-hit wonders. Still, even Leonard experiences days when he can't find the fairway. If you want to learn the secret to his success, don't study him when he's standing on the 10th tee on Sunday with that pit-bull set to his full jaw—watch on a Thursday when he can't put the ball in the fairway. "I've learned to be patient. I've never given up," Leonard says. "Not that other guys give up, but if they get three or four over, they might try to do something they wouldn't ordinarily try, like try to make a 40-footer."
In his opening round at the GTE Byron Nelson Classic last month, Leonard hit just two fairways on the front side, but when he made a 25-foot eagle putt on 11, he was one under. "If a person suddenly can't hear," said his coach, Randy Smith, as he walked the round with Leonard, "his eyesight, taste and smell get better and better." Buoyed by a sand save at 15, where he hit from the downslope of the bunker and put the ball within a foot of the cup, Leonard birdied two of the last three holes. It may have been like Eric Clapton playing Layla on a five-string guitar, but Leonard turned what should have been a 74 into a 68. "He's a thief. He had a day like this at Winged Foot," Smith said afterward, referring to the 1997 PGA, where Leonard finished second to Davis Love III. Leonard's assessment of his play that week is succinct. "I stunk the first two rounds," he says. "Five or six times I had to get up and down from 60 to 90 yards." He neglected to mention that in the third round he shot a course-record 65.
Tom Lehman, who finished tied for second behind Leonard at the Players, was paired with him in the first two rounds. "He wasn't hitting it very well, playing far from his best," Lehman says. "But he's so poised. The lesson is, hang in there, you never know what might happen on the weekend."