Respected but not quite feared.
Solid but not quite a superstar.
It all changed Sunday afternoon when the 25-year-old Texan won the 126th British Open at Royal Troon.
Not that Leonard ever saw it that way.
"I did play against Phil for two years. However, I didn't play against Tiger," Leonard said shortly after his final round of 6-under-par 65 and four-round score of 12-under 272 had given him a three-shot victory. "Obviously Phil had all the records and Tiger had quite a few. But I don't feel as if I was overshadowed by Phil."
Now Leonard has just as many major championships as a pro as the 21-year-old Woods -- one -- and one more than Mickelson, 27. But Leonard said that the runaway victory in the Masters by Woods at Augusta National earlier this year and the dramatic win Ernie Els of South Africa in last month's U.S. Open at Congressional motivated him.
"I don't feel like I play harder or practice harder because of them," Leonard said. "I have limitations, but I play quite a bit. I practice quite a bit. I enjoy being the last guy off the range. But maybe coming in here, having seen Tiger do so well, having seen Ernie do so well, maybe I thought it OK to go out and win a tournament like this being the age I am. So maybe that was in the back of my mind somewhere."
A lot has been made about Woods hitting golf balls when he was barely able to walk, about his having a chart of the majors Jack Nicklaus had won at certain ages hanging on a poster in his bedroom. But Leonard did things like hitting wedge shots over the stairs and family dog, designing golf holes in the sand instead of castles, writing school essays about the game's great players.
The older players on the tour, some of whom came back to the course to watch Leonard walk down the 18th fairway and be presented with the claret jug, admire his maturity. The guy his family and friends at home call "Jasper" had just come from five shots back to beat Jesper Parnevik, his five-shot deficit matching the largest in Open history a champion had to overcome.
"He acts a lot older than he is," said Billy Andrade, who is eight years Leonard's senior and considers him one of his best friends.
Said Brad Faxon, who at 35 is something of Leonard's big brother on tour, "He's a flat-liner. He just shows no emotion out there."
That has always been part of Leonard's problem. He was more a grinder than one of the game's next great players. He seemed to take the game, and perhaps himself, a bit too seriously. But if there was a chip on his shoulder, it was one with a few soft, and less than serious, edges. Those who know him say that you shouldn't be fooled by his businesslike approach on the course.
"On the golf course, he's usually very serious," said Randy Smith, the Dallas-based swing teacher who has worked with some of the game's best players, including Nicklaus, and who began teaching the game to Leonard when he was 7. "He's a very visual player, and it takes time to see shots. You get him off the golf course and he is a very humorous individual, outgoing and mischievous. He always looks like he's up to something."
It was Smith who suggested that Leonard come early and play as many holes in preparation as he would during the tournament. Leonard wound up playing eight more -- 80 in practice -- and said it helped him just as much as coming over to qualify for his first two Open tries.
In terms of his appreciation for the game's history in how it relates to the British Open, and his putting ability, Leonard VTC reminds some of another Texan, Ben Crenshaw. The suggestion was made last week that Leonard's work ethic and serious attitude are reminiscent of Tom Kite's, but the Ryder Cup captain sees another feisty player when he looks at his protege.
"I hate to compare players, but I see the same fight in him as I do with Corey Pavin," said Kite, who welcomed Leonard to the Ryder Cup team right after the presentation ceremony Sunday night. "He sets his jaw and you see him get down to work."
When a British reporter questioned Leonard about his less-than-textbook swing -- a swing made to compensate for being 5 foot 9 and 160 pounds -- the jaw was set. "What's wrong with my swing?" he said a bit testily. "It might not look like a lot of guys out here, but I know it works for me."
It worked for him at the University of Texas, where he won an NCAA championship and while there, a U.S. Amateur. It worked for him his first three years on tour, where he worked his way up from 126th as a rookie to 22nd in 1995 to 11th last year to third with his victory here. It was the third PGA title of his career, after last year's Buick Open and last month's Kemper Open.
It earned him a place on the Ryder Cup team in September at Valderrama in Spain, and it raised his profile, not to mention his expectations, on the PGA Tour as well. Those who know him well were not shocked by what he did Sunday and would not be surprised if this victory is merely a launching pad.
"When he sets his mind to do something, nobody can stop him," said Bob Riefke, who has caddied for Leonard for most of his career. "He's one of the most determined players on the tour."
And no longer overshadowed.
Justin Leonard file
Born: June 15, 1972
Height: 5 feet 9
Weight: 160 pounds
College: University of Texas
Highlights: Only golfer in Southwest Conference history to win four consecutive championships. Won 1992 U.S. Amateur. One of three rookies to qualify for 1995 Tour Championship. Finished 22nd on 1995 money list with $748,793. Won 1996 Buick Open, 1997 Kemper Open and 1997 British Open at Royal Troon.
Pub Date: 7/22/97