This may be of interest only to Lawrence Henry and me, but I think it is high time that Justin Leonard began getting more respect in the golf world. His victory in the Texas Open yesterday was the 11th of his career, yet he seems to get treated like only a second-tier star rather than a top-tier one such as Jim Furyk or David Toms. I’ve liked Leonard ever since his incredibly classy victory speech after winning the 1997 British Open. He always seems to try to do things with class, and he’s also a traditionalist who (along with Davis Love III) kept using real wooden “woods” for quite some time after everybody else moved to metal.
Anyway, let’s look at the stats, which should fairly merit his career a stature right up there with Furyk and above that of Toms — and, indeed, aside from Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Furyk, should rank him above all other Americans under 45. (The only others who can arguably be in the same class are Lee Janzen, with eight victories including two US Opens and one Players Championship, and David Duval, with one major [British Open] and a Players Championship among his 13 wins — but both of them were comparatively shooting stars who have done very little for six or more years. And both are older than Leonard, meaning they are far less likely to add to their career totals.)
So far, Leonard, Toms, and Furyk have each one just one professional major. But Leonard also has a US Amateur title to his credit; the other two don’t. Leonard also has won a Tournament Players Championship; the other two haven’t. Leonard also sank what was arguably the most famous, most important putt in Ryder Cup history to nail down the American win in 1999. In the biggest tournaments, then, Leonard bests both of them.
In total tour victories, they are close: Furyk has 13, Toms 12, and Leonard 11. (Leonard and Furyk have played in almost the same number of tournaments: 373 for Leonard to 362 for Furyk; Toms has played in far more, at 421.) In second place finishes, Furyk leads 19 to Leonard’s 15 to Toms’ 9. In top 10s, Furyk leads 115 to Toms’s 83 to Leonard’s 76. In top-25 finishes, the order is the same, with Furyk substantially ahead, and Toms barely ahead of Leonard at 173 to 167. Again, Toms has racked up the tiny leads on Leonard only by playing in 48 more tournaments. And Leonard actually leads Toms in cuts made, 286 to 280.
Leonard also easily bests Toms in terms of non-winning performances in major tournaments. He has lost in playoffs in both the British Open (1999) and the PGA (2004), and finished 2nd in another PGA (1997) and led yet another PGA through 60 holes before fading to fourth. He also has a penchant for comebacks: Three times he has come back from five strokes behind after three rounds to win, including his British Open title and his Players Championship, and yesterday’s win came after a four-stroke comeback. And a number of his wins have come over top-notch players who finished second: Tom Lehman, Love, Toms, Jesper Parnevik (twice), Darren Clarke, and Chad Campbell.
And Leonard has done all this at a younger age than the other two: He’s just 35, compared to 37 for Furyk and 40 for Toms. He is thus at least even money to keep adding to his win totals longer than both of them do.
For further comparison, consider that Leonard is on almost the exact same winning pace as the great Ben Crenshaw, who at the same age had only one more tournament victory (12 to 11), the same single major title, and no players Championships or US Amateur titles. And he is well ahead of the pace of fellow Texan Tom Kite, who had just seven titles by the same age.
So here’s a toast to Justin Leonard. And a prediction that when his career finally does wrap up, people will realize that he merits mention among the top 60 or so golfers of all time…