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Sunday Driver
John Garrity
April 06, 1998
With another of his patented late charges, the unflappable Justin Leonard blew by the field to win the Players Championship
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April 06, 1998

Sunday Driver

With another of his patented late charges, the unflappable Justin Leonard blew by the field to win the Players Championship

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Justin Leonard was talking into a television camera behind the 18th green on Sunday afternoon—one of those pro forma victory burbles expected of tournament winners—when PGA Tour veteran Lee Janzen crept behind him and administered a two-handed finger trill to his rib cage. Leonard's response: a blink or two, followed by more of his well-mannered blah-blah-blah. "Not even ticklish," said an awed Janzen. "That's how good he is."

Leonard left everyone at the 25th Players Championship wondering what it takes to crack his composure. For the third time in nine months, he started a final round five strokes in arrears, only to wind up the winner. Last June he picked up six shots on third-round-leader Mark Wiebe and won the Kemper Open. In July he gained eight shots on third-round-leader Jesper Parnevik and won the British Open. This time, under a blue Florida sky on the TPC at Sawgrass, he outplayed another third-round leader—Janzen—by 12 strokes in the final round to earn $720,000, the PGA Tour's biggest check.

Leonard is relentless in pursuit; bookstores would sell a lot of copies of his biography to process servers and repo men. "I've been in this position a couple of times," he said on Sunday evening, after he had fought off challenges from a self-proclaimed Arkansas redneck and a break-your-heart family man playing for his daughter in a stroller and his gravely ill mother in a wheelchair. "I knew that this golf tournament was within reach."

When something is within reach, Leonard grabs it. He's a 25-year-old perfectionist who says his strength is "managing my game and avoiding mistakes." In another life he would be a wedding planner—the kind who hires a disc jockey instead of a band for the reception because musicians smoke and make rude noises in the bathroom.

He may be a bit anal, but he can putt. (He needed only 24 putts on Saturday and made final-round putts of 10, 12, 20, 20 and 30 feet.) He can also drive. And he can cut your heart out with a single stroke, as he did Sunday by hitting to tap-in range on the 215-yard 8th hole. "When he roped that one-iron in there," said his father, Larry, "I thought, You just don't see any better golf shots."

As the week began, two other players were under the microscope: John Daly because it was the one-year anniversary of the alcoholic meltdown that had him cruising Jacksonville Beach like a spring-breaker and ultimately trashing his hotel room and his marriage; and Tiger Woods because he had not won on the Tour since last summer, panicking sponsors and violating prophesy. Neither player seemed bothered by the scrutiny, or by their absence from the leader board. Woods shrugged off his two-over-par, 35th-place finish and assured everyone that he's ready to defend his Masters tide next week in Georgia. Daly, meanwhile, played dogged, intelligent golf at Sawgrass, shooting a final-round 69 and finishing 16th.

Janzen, a former U.S. Open champion, teed off Sunday afternoon with a three-stroke lead, and most observers expected him to easily hold on to that margin and reprise his Players win of 1995. Instead, he quickly yielded the momentum to Glen Day, a little-known Arkansas pro with a red-clay twang and a disconcerting habit of switching without warning from redneck ribaldry to homespun sincerity. His best previous finish had been a second in the 1994 Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic, but he played beautifully on Sunday and made the turn in 33, two shots ahead of the surging Len Mattiace. It looked like a brand-new Day, but an inner voice may have been telling him he wasn't going to win. "Seems like a lot of the tournaments when I play really good," Day had said on Saturday night, "someone shoots zero."

Two someones nearly did. The 30-year-old Mattiace, whose biggest paycheck to date is the $250,000 he got for winning the 1996 Compaq World Putting Championship, rolled in birdies on 10, 11 and 12 and was suddenly leading at 10 under. Then Leonard, who made a series of long Sunday putts at the British Open, one-putted holes 10 through 15, four for birdies. The on-course scoreboards nearly blew fuses from the lead changes, but when Leonard teed off on 16, he was at 11 under, one ahead of Mattiace and four ahead of Day.

That's when Mattiace made a strategic error. He had putted brilliantly all day, but on the island-green 17th he couldn't find a puttable surface. Needing only 130 yards to safely reach land, Mattiace flew a nine-iron 159 yards, right over the flag and the green and into the water. His next effort, a 101-yard sand wedge from the drop area, wound up in a pot bunker between the flag and the drink. Then he skulled his sand shot over the green and into the water.

"I just covered my face and said, 'He doesn't deserve this,' " said his wife, Kristen, who was behind the 17th green with their infant daughter, Gracee, in a stroller and Mattiace's mother, Joyce, 61, in a wheelchair. (Joyce is undergoing therapy for lung cancer.) Before Mattiace putted out, Kristin wheeled Gracee through the buzzing gallery toward the 18th. Someone told her he'd made an 8.

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