Last year's Phoenix Open ended with Phil Mickelson beating me in sudden death in front of the largest gallery in the history of golf—more than 150,000 spectators, most of whom were rooting for Phil because he had gone to college in the area and now makes his home there. Because it was such a close finish and because a few fans yelled some inappropriate things at me at inappropriate moments, a lot of people assume that I must have bad memories. The truth is just the opposite. Phoenix was my best learning experience since turning pro 2½ years ago. And believe it or not, I actually had a good time.
Sure, I was annoyed after losing, and the catcalls were part of the reason. You don't expect to hear "Miss it!" while you're over a crucial putt, as I did in the playoff. After Phil birdied the third extra hole to win, I was asked if I'd be back and I said I wasn't sure. Mainly, I was hurting because I had done so many things well enough to win but still hadn't been able to get my first victory as a pro. Playing with Phil, I had shot 69 in the last round and even birdied the first hole in sudden death. Once I sorted out my disappointment, though, I realized there was no way I would skip Phoenix. Two weeks later I wrote to tournament officials asking them to make my hotel reservations for 1997.
The whole atmosphere during last year's final round was electric, like a Texas-Oklahoma football game. At one point Phil said, 'This is what it's all about." I said, "You're right. This is cool." I knew a lot of people would be revved up because Phil's a local and Phoenix was hosting the Super Bowl the next day. A small minority got carried away, but they didn't affect my performance. Bottom line: I didn't take advantage of as many opportunities as Phil did, and he deserved the victory. But I didn't come away with nothing. I became stronger mentally from losing in that type of situation. I learned that I have what it takes to win and that I enjoy the pressure. Playing that round was like looking at myself under a microscope. What I saw increased my confidence.
The experience paid off later. In August I won the Buick Open. The next month, on the very tense final day of the Presidents Cup, I was three down against Steve Elkington. I made a birdie on the 16th and a 25-footer for another at 17 to get the match to the 18th. On the final green I was looking at a 12-foot birdie putt when Steve holed a 25-footer to beat me. Still, I'll always remember how much I was looking forward to stroking that final putt, and that's due to what happened at Phoenix.
So no more condolences. I can't wait to give it another try in Phoenix this week, although I am happy that the Super Bowl is in New Orleans.
Justin Leonard, 24, is a former U.S. Amateur and NCAA champion.