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An Interview with JUSTIN LEONARD
KELLY ELBIN: U.S. Team member Justin Leonard joining us, ladies and gentlemen, here at the 37th Ryder Cup at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. This will be Justin's third Ryder Cup appearance, his third since 1999, at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Justin qualified for the U.S. Team by finishing sixth on the U.S. points list.
Welcome back to the Ryder Cup and welcome to Valhalla Golf Club. Initial impressions; obviously you haven't played the golf course here this week, but just what it means to be back as a member of the Ryder Cup Team.
JUSTIN LEONARD: It's a great feeling to be back. It's been nine years for me, and I've got some good memories of Ryder Cups, and hopefully I can bring some of those memories back and help the team as best I can.
KELLY ELBIN: Thank you. For the record, Justin tied for fifth at the 1996 PGA Championship here at Valhalla.
Q. How many times are you asked about '99 and about the putt, and just now kind of reliving what happened then and being back, I guess, just you talked at the PGA about wanting to get back, and now that you're here.
JUSTIN LEONARD: It's been a lot of fun the last month or so, since the PGA and the qualifying for the team was over. I've been asked about it a lot, been able to relive it quite a bit. And it's been a lot of fun, especially in Boston at the Deutsche Bank a few weeks ago, being pretty close to Brookline, I heard it at least once a hole, so that was a very fun week.
I got home last week for the week off, and I woke up Monday morning and I was working out, flipped on the TV, and there was the hour special about Brookline. It's been hard to escape, but I've enjoyed it.
Q. Paul obviously has changed a lot of things. He changed the selection and the playing order a little bit. Given the European streak, what all is changing with the American approach? Can you tell a lot just from what you've seen so far, what on your team might be different?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Well, I think a change in the qualifying system is definitely a step in the right direction. To base it more off of this year's play, and then to have four picks and be able to wait three weeks on those four picks to really see the guys that are playing well and who would fit well with the team I think is going to be to our advantage.
I just know that we've got a great mix of guys who have played in some Ryder Cups and some guys who haven't. I think those younger guys are very determined to get our team headed in the right direction this week.
And I know that myself, even though I haven't played in a while, but having played in Ryder Cups, we're definitely ready to get this thing turned around, and we're headed in that direction.
Q. Looking back at '99 and the spirit the American Team had on that Saturday night, to come back as you were clearly underdogs on that occasion, do you think you might need that same spirit this week?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I think so. I don't really feel like the spirit has been missing. I think we come into these weeks wanting to enjoy the week together, the camaraderie that we build throughout the week. Just from the outside looking in, I think the last three events we've just been clearly outplayed. I think we've got with the qualifying system and the picks that Captain Azinger has made, I think we've got our best team we could have.
I like our team, I like our pairing possibilities, and this is a good group of guys. We had a good time last night, and we're here to enjoy the week and get prepared as best we can.
Q. Just looking back at '99 and the events on the 17th, do you have regrets of the way the celebrations happened, and nine years on from that, you're older and wiser. Would you like to think you'd do it differently if the same were to happen this week?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I would have done it differently, sure. But I think you have to keep in mind, there was so much emotion that day and we had so much momentum going, and unfortunately that spilled over into it. Yeah, I certainly would have done some things differently.
I know for myself and for anybody that was on that team, it didn't take away from our victory at all, but I think we all would have done some things differently.
Q. Since '99, you guys have never led after any session, any day of every Ryder Cup. I don't know if you're aware of that
JUSTIN LEONARD: No.
Q. That in mind, I wonder if you could speak to the importance of Friday in the grand scheme of things?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I think it's important that I don't think it's crucial that we're leading after Friday or that we win any of the sessions.
But I certainly think it's important that we're a lot closer than we have been. I think we do need to get off to a good start and get some momentum in that first day and then keep that going.
Again, I don't think you can well, you might be able to lose a Ryder Cup on Friday, but it's pretty difficult. But I think the important thing is to stay close and for guys to we've got six guys that haven't played in a Ryder Cup. So for those guys to kind of get their feet under them and get a feel for what it's all about, you know, just keep it close.
We're going to enjoy the week, and you know, it'll be a nice position being the underdog and playing here at home. So we're going to try and use that to our advantage.
Q. Do you recall what the pressure was like playing in your first Ryder Cup, just teeing off the first day, and how did it compare to winning the British Open, the feelings that you felt coming down the stretch doing that?
JUSTIN LEONARD: It was certainly different. I would say that the pressure teeing off the first day is probably as nervous as I've ever been. Coming down the stretch at the Open, you know, I'd been playing all week and playing well and had a good feel for my game and those kind of things, and really wasn't too concerned about the outcome. I was just trying to hit the right shots and make a few putts, which I was able to do.
The first tee at my first Ryder Cup was new territory for me. You know, it didn't take me too long to settle down, but that first tee shot is pretty exciting.
Q. Did you play in the morning session?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Actually the morning session I sat out. I played in the afternoon, played with Jeff Maggert.
Q. Can you describe the effect back in '99 of having George W. Bush coming into the team room and leading that letter from the Alamo to you; and is it important for a captain to devise something like that every time do you think?
JUSTIN LEONARD: '99 it was very special, and maybe even more special for me because I am from the State of Texas. You know, all growing up and studying our state history, I knew quite a bit about the Alamo; and to have President Bush come in and read that speech was very special.
I think it's just a bonus to the week when things like that happen. Last night we went to the Muhammad Ali Center, and it was pretty inspirational to get a sense of what he went through in his life and all the things that he did outside of the sports world.
I don't think that we as players need that for further motivation. I think the motivation is already there. But it just adds some memories to the week.
Q. Could you talk about the two Kentucky guys, J.B. Holmes and Kenny Perry, talk about their games and what they bring to this team?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I think they bring us an even bigger home field advantage. We know that we're going to get the support of the fans playing in the U.S., but to be here in Kentucky so close to Kenny and J.B. Kenny's game has spoken for itself this year, three wins, and he's a guy that he's unflappable. To win three times in a year is pretty incredible. And he's really made it his mission this year to make this Ryder Cup Team, and he made it very, very easily.
I'm looking forward to seeing him play and I know a lot of the fans here are.
J.B. brings that kind of young mentality of he's not afraid of anything. As Azinger said, he's got the courage of a burglar. He's not going to back down from anything, as we all witnessed in Phoenix this year. His ability to just absolutely overpower a golf course. So with that kind of exciting player playing in front of just kind of his home fans, it's going to be pretty electrifying.
Q. What's the closest you have on your team to a Muhammad Ali?
JUSTIN LEONARD: You know, Steve Stricker may be fairly close, just because his game went south for a while and he was able to fight back and get back into a stage like this. You know, and he's been here for two years.
And I know that I drew a lot of inspiration from Steve, especially through '06 and the middle part of last year in watching his game come back into form and the way he was able to get back to being one of the best players in the world. So I think he's probably as close.
Q. The impact of no Tiger at this Ryder Cup, I guess I could leave it open, but some might say that the U.S. Team might rally around not having him there, and conversely, that Europe doesn't have a scalp to get, if you know what I mean?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Yeah, I mean, we'd certainly love to have Tiger here. He's the best player in the world, and he's an asset to any team that he's on, and to have him around and in the locker room would be huge.
The fact that he's not is something that we've had some time to come to deal with, and I think without Tiger Woods, we've got the best team available.
Q. What do you make of the theory that is going around that you guys are actually better off without Tiger because every point he loses is worth more because of the momentum it creates for Europe?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Well, I think we're the only reason we're probably considering that is because he's not here. If Tiger Woods was here, you certainly wouldn't say we're better off without him. I think that some guy is trying to paint a little bit of a silver lining. Any team is not going to be as strong when they don't have the best player in the world. But the fact is we don't.
I like our team, would certainly love for Tiger to be here, but he's not. So we're going to go out and give it our best and maybe rally around the fact that he's not.
Q. You talked about how nervous you were in your first Ryder Cup. What advice are you giving to this year's rookies?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Just try and be ready for that. You know, it's hard to really put into words what the feeling is, and different guys feel it more than others.
But I think that's something that we'll probably start talking about a little bit here in the next couple days and try and explain it. But I mean, these guys are all world class players. They've faced pressure before, and they know how their body is going to react.
It's just intensified a little bit here, but it doesn't take too long to get over it. But that first tee shot is a lot of fun.
Q. You said earlier that you didn't think the spirit had been missing or absent, but I wonder with you back in the side with a few others from '99 around, whether you think there will be a recreation of that special atmosphere or whether you might be thinking of recreating the spirit of Brookline, if you like?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I hope we're able to do that. It's hard to really see that kind of spirit when you're facing a large deficit, and even as we were in '99. As I've seen it quite a few times, especially in the last few weeks, I'm sure you have, when Crenshaw sat up here on this stage in front of you guys and said I've got a good feeling about this and that's all I'm going to say. We believed in it.
I think we've got a group here this weeks that believes we can go out there and do it this week.
Q. You have experience with match play in Ryder Cup. Are there certain guys that you just feel more comfortable with as a pairing, and do you try to give Paul any input as you go into this for the pairings so you don't get caught in one that maybe you don't feel as comfortable?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Well, I think you need to have a plan in place and have a few guys that you know you're going to likely play with, but you also have to be flexible. You also have to know that you may have to change things up, and I think we're all prepared to do that, to go out and I'd be very comfortable playing with any one of the other 11 guys on this team. I think most guys would say the same thing.
And the nice thing is we've had a lot of time to think about possible pairings and strategy. So there's been a lot of thought put into it. Again, have a plan but stay flexible.
Q. Paul Azinger declares himself about as passionate about this tournament as anyone else. Could I just ask you what sort of a style or personality or character has he brought to the captaincy so far, or how do you think he will make his stamp on that particular job?
JUSTIN LEONARD: You know, Paul is a pretty intense competitor, as I think we all know, just through his play and throughout his career. He brings that intensity into this event.
He also just stresses with us to enjoy the week and let's have some fun. If we do that, we're going to play looser, and I think that's one of the things that's been missing. He's just stressed to us, go out, let's get prepared as best we can and see if that's enough. I think it's an attitude that all the guys are excited about.
You know, it's Tuesday; we haven't seen his passion yet, but we will by the end of the week, and I'm looking forward to that.
KELLY ELBIN: Justin Leonard, thank you very much.
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