Leonard returns to evoke the notorious spirit of Brookline
Wednesday 17 September 2008
They were scenes from another century and, claim the protectors of the Ryder Cup spirit, from a darker age the game has left behind. The principal villain, however, has another idea and sees no reason why the spirit of Brookline should not be summoned. Yes, Justin Leonard has his regrets but the overriding memories of what occurred on that 17th hole in 1999 are ones of pride, joy and fulfilment. Indeed, emotions that no other American team-member has felt since that day they all danced on the green.
It was inevitable that Leonard would be asked to atone for his sins when, after a nine-year absence, he re-entered the confession chamber otherwise known as the media centre's interview room here at Valhalla Golf Club. Come on Justin, tell us how ashamed you are of triggering what Sam Torrance, the European assistant captain that afternoon, called the "most disgusting thing I've ever seen on a golf course". Tell us how you wish you had never kicked your heels across that sacred putting surface and jumped all over your team-mates as poor Jose Maria Olazabal was still sizing up his own 25-footer. If ever there was a chance for the older, wiser man to look back and tutt at that exuberant youth then this was it. This was Leonard's Morgan Freeman moment.
"I would do it differently now sure," said the 36-year-old, going at least some of the way to assuaging the critics. "But what I think you have to keep in mind is was how much emotion we had that day. We had so much momentum going on and unfortunately that spilled over. So yeah, I would certainly have done some things differently. But I know that for myself and for anybody that was on that team it didn't take away from our victory at all."
In many respects that is understandable, as their comeback did happen to be the most unlikely in the Cup's history. Leonard's own match was a microcosm of the resurrection as he turned around a four-hole deficit with just seven left to play against that year's Masters champion. Often forgotten amid the ensuing controversy was that Leonard did not beat Olazabal, but that 45-foot bombshell ensured the half-point that meant America had prevailed. Alas, it was also doomed to ensure that the success would be tainted. No matter how spectacular it had been.
But how about this: why should not America look back on that Sunday with all the satisfaction associated with achieving the impossible, particularly as they have the man back in the ranks who dug deeper than any to find the passion that the side has supposedly always been lacking? "Justin has been the link from our last winning Ryder Cup team," Phil Mickelson said . "He hasn't played since '99 and I think he's going to bring that winning inspiration." In other words, why not try to restage that unique atmosphere?
"I hope we are able to," said Leonard, unashamedly. "You know the last month or so, since the qualifying team was over I've been asked about it a lot and been able to relive it quite a bit. In Boston at the Deutsche Bank a few weeks ago, which is close to Brookline, I heard it at least once a hole and it was fun. And on Monday I woke up and flipped on the television and there was an hour-long special about that day. So it's been hard to escape, but I've enjoyed it."
Like most Americans, Leonard refuses to regard it as the blackest moment in his sport and also does not subscribe to the theory that the match's atmosphere was way over the top. He and his country like to recall it rather differently. Take Hunter Mahan. As a 17-year-old, this week's Ryder rookie was in the Brookline crowd on the Saturday and remembers not the rabble who singled out Colin Montgomerie, but a set of supporters who through their enthusiasm merely maintained that anything was still possible.
"I don't know if we were shouting 'USA, USA' but we were rooting hard for them," Mahan admitted. "It was unbelievable. I've never seen or heard anything like it. In golf you don't usually have kind of a home-court advantage – only in the Ryder Cup. To have all the fans pulling hard for them because they were getting down so early. Well, we were trying everything we could to help them out."
The players responded and their joy was unconfined and untempered. It was certainly a million miles from Mahan's remarks in a recent magazine article in which he claimed that the players felt like "slaves" at an event that earns so much for the organisers. The 26-year-old was quick to backtrack from those comments yesterday and no wonder. If America are to conquer against the odds, they need everyone on the same hymn sheet and none on the charge-sheet. Yet if they are to are to have a chance, respect should not be confused with submission.
Leonard, for one, has certainly not come this far to surrender meekly. The 1997 Open champion has missed out on the last three teams as his form nosedived but he never allowed himself to think that putt at Brookline would be his final Ryder Cup memory. "People around me wouldn't let me do that – Amanda [his wife] first and foremost," he said. "She always told me to believe in myself. When I wasn't playing well, I thought about the Ryder Cup and got myself back in that mindset. I really felt like I'd make another team."
Leonard is back, although it is not redemption he is after – it's a reprise. He and America both.
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