Last year's Phoenix Open ended with Phil Mickelson beating me in
sudden death in front of the largest gallery in the history of
golf--more than 150,000 spectators, most of whom were rooting
for Phil because he had gone to college in the area and now
makes his home there. Because it was such a close finish and
because a few fans yelled some inappropriate things at me at
inappropriate moments, a lot of people assume that I must have
bad memories. The truth is just the opposite. Phoenix was my
best learning experience since turning pro 2 1/2 years ago. And
believe it or not, I actually had a good time.
Sure, I was annoyed after losing, and the catcalls were part of
the reason. You don't expect to hear "Miss it!" while you're
over a crucial putt, as I did in the playoff. After Phil birdied
the third extra hole to win, I was asked if I'd be back and I
said I wasn't sure. Mainly, I was hurting because I had done so
many things well enough to win but still hadn't been able to get
my first victory as a pro. Playing with Phil, I had shot 69 in
the last round and even birdied the first hole in sudden death.
Once I sorted out my disappointment, though, I realized there
was no way I would skip Phoenix. Two weeks later I wrote to
tournament officials asking them to make my hotel reservations
The whole atmosphere during last year's final round was
electric, like a Texas-Oklahoma football game. At one point Phil
said, "This is what it's all about." I said, "You're right. This
is cool." I knew a lot of people would be revved up because
Phil's a local and Phoenix was hosting the Super Bowl the next
day. A small minority got carried away, but they didn't affect
my performance. Bottom line: I didn't take advantage of as many
opportunities as Phil did, and he deserved the victory. But I
didn't come away with nothing. I became stronger mentally from
losing in that type of situation. I learned that I have what it
takes to win and that I enjoy the pressure. Playing that round
was like looking at myself under a microscope. What I saw
increased my confidence.
The experience paid off later. In August I won the Buick Open.
The next month, on the very tense final day of the Presidents
Cup, I was three down against Steve Elkington. I made a birdie
on the 16th and a 25-footer for another at 17 to get the match
to the 18th. On the final green I was looking at a 12-foot
birdie putt when Steve holed a 25-footer to beat me. Still, I'll
always remember how much I was looking forward to stroking that
final putt, and that's due to what happened at Phoenix.
So no more condolences. I can't wait to give it another try in
Phoenix this week, although I am happy that the Super Bowl is in
Justin Leonard, 24, is a former U.S. Amateur and NCAA champion.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Justin Leonard]