Leonard avoids huge collapse

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2005

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Justin Leonard didn't fret despite nearly blowing the PGA Tour's biggest lead this year.

He suddenly went from cruising around the TPC at Southwind protecting an eight-stroke lead Sunday to grinding through the final two holes and pulling out a one-shot victory over David Toms at the St. Jude Classic.

''I've always learned more from the disappointments and little lessons, although this ultimate outcome was not a disappointment. I was under the gun those last two holes, and I was able to come through,'' Leonard said.

''The putt at 17 was so critical, then I had the cushion to play 18 the way I did. So those two putts, I'm more proud of that than the 62 on Thursday or anything else I've done this week.''

Leonard collapsed on the green out of relief after sinking a 3 1/2-foot bogey putt to clinch the first wire-to-wire win of his career and the second on tour this year.

He closed with a 3-over 73 to finish at 14-under 266 and earn the 10th title of his career. It's the second time Leonard didn't record a birdie in his final round and still won, the last in 2002 at Hilton Head when he became the first tour winner to do that in seven years. He hit only five of 18 greens in regulation Sunday.

''I've probably got a title for my own book,'' Leonard jokingly said. ''It's called, 'Winning Ugly.'''

Toms, the two-time defending champion, was the only golfer to put any pressure on Leonard.

Leonard led by two strokes after an opening 62, five strokes after 36 holes and stretched that to an eight-stroke margin that was the largest on tour this year going into the final round.

Toms shot a 63 in the best round Sunday and featured four birdies, an eagle and a bogey on the back nine.

''It made it interesting at least,'' Toms said.

Fred Funk (68) was third at 271, while Davis Love III (68) and Heath Slocum (71) tied for fourth at 272.

Leonard, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic winner in January, joined some select company with Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Kenny Perry as multiple winners on tour this year. It's the first time Leonard has won two events in a year since 1997, when he took the Kemper Open and the British Open.

He pocketed the winner's $882,000 check by becoming only the third wire-to-wire winner in the 48-year history of the tournament, joining Bob Estes (2001) and Dave Hill (1967).

It wasn't easy.

With the course redesigned from a par 71 to par 70 and bentgrass greens switched out for champion Bermuda, it was supposed to be a tougher challenge for PGA golfers. It wasn't for Leonard until Sunday when the first wind of the week finally blew through.

Leonard played as conservatively as he did Saturday, but found himself struggling. He had only one bogey through the first 40 holes, then hit into a bunker on No. 7 and couldn't recover for a bogey that dropped him to 16 under.

Toms, who pulled off his own six-stroke victory here last year, ran out of holes in trying to become the first player on tour to win the same event three straight years since Tiger Woods. Toms' only regret was missing a 14-foot birdie putt on No. 18 that could have forced a playoff.

''I got to 18 and obviously was wanting to make birdie there and finish it off,'' Toms said. ''That's the only time I saw he was all the way back down to 15 (under). I saw where he bogeyed 15. That's the only time I knew I was within two. If I had made that putt, there was the chance he could bogey 17 or 18, which he did.

''I just didn't hit a very good putt there on the last hole.''

Leonard gave himself his cushion with a 7-footer for par on the par-4 17th. He hit into a fairway bunker staying away from the lake along No. 18, put his second shot in the rough in front of the greenside grandstands. He took relief with a drop, then chipped over a bunker within 34 feet and putted out for his bogey and the victory.

He is only the 22nd active golfer with at least 10 career titles. He's also off to his best start monetarily through 12 events with $1.99 million in earnings, but has missed four cuts, and his tie for 13th at the Masters is his only top 25 other than his two victories.

''It's a good thing I had an eight-shot cushion because I was able to stay out just enough in front of a great round by David,'' Leonard said.

Divots: Vijay Singh was the last to win on tour despite not making a birdie in the final round before Sunday when he won the 2004 PGA Championship in a playoff that included Leonard. ... This is the 23rd time a player holding a seven-stroke or better lead with 18 holes left has won a tour event since 1970 and the third this year — the most in any year since 1970. Mickelson did it at Pebble Beach, and Perry last week at Colonial.

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