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GOLF NOTES

Leonard's Year Was Full of Minor Achievements

January 12, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

The last and only time Justin Leonard won a major title was nine years ago when he was 25, and it looked as if it was only the beginning and everything seemed possible. Well, not really. Leonard, who turns 34 in June, seemed to be waiting to break out again, which is what he did last year, except in the majors.

He was tied for 13th at the Masters, tied for 23rd at the U.S. Open, tied for 52nd at the British Open and missed the cut at the PGA Championship.

If that sounds like a disappointing year, it wasn't, because Leonard actually had what amounts to the second-best year of his 12-year career. It all began with his come-from-behind victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

Three shots down to Joe Ogilvie on the last day, Leonard shot a 67 and kick-started a year in which he also would win at Memphis, anchor a Presidents Cup victory for the U.S. with a 3-1-1 record and earn $2.665 million in 24 events. And that wasn't bad for a guy who had labored over retooling his swing and changed his equipment to Nike.

Leonard said the Hope was the key to his season.

"Being able to win a tournament like the Hope and to do that so early in the year really takes some pressure off," he said. "I felt like I played a little more at ease last year."

Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion, is a 10-time PGA Tour winner and he could have had more -- he has been second 14 times. But with more than $20 million in career earnings and a well-deserved reputation as a clutch player -- he is one of the top putters on tour -- Leonard may be well on the way toward reinventing himself, from successful kid to successful veteran.

The $5-million, 90-hole Bob Hope Chrysler Classic starts Wednesday at the new, 7,305-yard Classic Course, which is the host course, plus holdovers La Quinta Country Club, Bermuda Dunes Country Club and the Palmer Course at PGA West.

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So how many PGA Tour pros is Michelle Wie going to finish ahead of this week? Wie is playing the PGA Tour's Sony Open that begins today in her hometown of Honolulu, trying to become the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to make the cut in a men's professional event.

Last year at 15, Wie missed the cut at the Sony Open by seven shots, but still shot better than 13 male players. In the 2004 Sony, she shot a second-round 68, which is the lowest score by a woman playing in a men's pro tour event, and missed the cut by one shot, but better than 47 men.

This year, Wie has a different layer of problems: her junior year in high school. She has midterms next week, when she also tries to get her driver's license.

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He's 0 for 27 in majors as a professional, but who's counting? Not Sergio Garcia, who opened his 2006 season at the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua on Maui and was seventh. The 26-year-old Spaniard predicts a good year for himself and says he isn't ruffled by persistent questions from the media on his expected timetable to reach the winner's circle at a major.

"It really doesn't bother me, not because of you [media] asking me, but because of me not having been able to win a major more than anything," he said. "Don't get me wrong. I try to win as many majors as I can ... but I'm not bothered about it. It's not a life and death situation."

Besides, there's the Tiger Woods situation, Garcia said.

"It depends who you compare me with. If you compare me with Tiger, who is something out of the ordinary, of course, my career doesn't seem that great. But if you compare me with the other . . . 26-year-old players, I'm sure pretty much all of them would love to have a career like the one I have."

Garcia has six PGA Tour victories and 10 others worldwide. It should be noted that the U.S. Open is at Medinah Country Club, where Garcia lost to Woods by one shot at the PGA Championship in 1999, the year he turned pro.

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Not that he cares about it, but Vijay Singh once again failed to make a few, or any, friends in the media when he refused to speak to them Sunday at Kapalua after he lost in a playoff to Stuart Appleby. Singh declined to speak at the side of the 18th green and turned down a second request in the locker room, although he did submit to a four-question session, but only with a PGA Tour media official.

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How tough a life is it on the PGA Tour? On the course, it's brutal, but off it, well, consider the treatment the pros received at the Ritz Carlton during last week's Mercedes Championships at Kapalua. For welcoming, more than 1,000 orchid leis were given to the players and their guests. And 35,000 slices of pineapple were served during the week.

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The quote of the week is from Michael Campbell, when asked about his strategy for the final round at Kapalua and in an analogy about chess pieces, used the word "prawns."

Said Campbell: "Sorry, pawns. Prawns on the barbie, mate."

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The second quote of the week is from Appleby, who won at Kapalua for the third straight year.

Said Appleby: "First time great. Second time awesome. Third time, it's the wrong English, but more awesomer."

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Rankings update: With his victory, Appleby moved up nine places in the official world ranking, from 30th to 21st. There was only one position change in the top 10, with Adam Scott getting to eighth and bumping Colin Montgomerie to ninth. Woods is first and his lead is 6.98 points over Singh. As a reference point, Woods' lead was 7.14 points over No. 2 Phil Mickelson at a similar stage four years ago.

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