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Published: Monday, 9/20/2010

Leonard back in spotlight for U.S.


You may remember, depending on which side of the pond you reside, that Leonard made either the greatest or most notorious putt ever in this event, a 45-foot bomb that capped a historic comeback, both for the Texan and the United States in the 1999 Cup matches.

Leonard hasn't played in the Ryder Cup since. The U.S. hasn't won since. One doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the other.

But when the Americans ambushed the heavily favored European team yesterday at Valhalla Golf Club, taking a stunning 5 1/2-2 1/2 lead after Day One, Leonard was front and center along with unheralded partner Hunter Mahan.

They went out twice together and won twice together. During the afternoon four-ball, they handed Sergio Garcia just his second loss in 16 partners matches. Leonard and Mahan closed out Garcia and his partner, Miguel Angel Jimenez, at the 15th hole. Leonard wrapped it up by chipping in from gnarly rough just off the green.

This wasn't Sunday at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. It was Friday at Valhalla. So the celebration after Leonard's chip-in was a whoop and a couple arm pumps and a high-five. Garcia and Jimenez both had putts to keep the match alive, and, trust me, Leonard wasn't about to do anything to impact their efforts.

When he made the infamous putt at the 17th hole in '99, teammates and wives ran onto the green for an impromptu lovefest. One problem, though, was Europe's Jose Maria Olazabal, who blew a 4-up lead with seven holes to play, still had a 25-foot putt to halve the hole.

"Disgusting," said Sam Torrance, the Euro captain at the time.

Order was eventually restored, and Olazabal missed his putt, and that was that. Leonard was 1-up with one to play and even one-half point for a halved match, which is how it ended up, was enough to clinch victory for the U.S.

Despite making a putt that will never be forgotten, despite winning a British Open and a Players Championship and 10 other PGA Tour events, Leonard walked onto the course at Valhalla yesterday having never won a single match in Ryder Cup play.

Boy, did that change. And because it did, and because the Phil Mickelson-Anthony Kim pairing paid huge dividends, and because Stewart Cink-Chad Campbell roared back after falling 3-down through seven holes, the Yanks had a day unlike any in many years.

"We're real happy with where we are, but we're not even at the halfway point yet, and we know how good Europe is," said U.S. captain Paul Azinger. "We've got to do it again tomorrow."

Perhaps they will. Late last night, Nick Faldo, the European captain, announced some surprising pairings for this morning's foursomes matches. He will rest both Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. Azinger, meanwhile, will roll out the same teams that were so strong and so resilient and so productive yesterday, including Leonard-Mahan.

"Hunter and I really just enjoyed the day," Leonard said. "We had a fun time. We enjoyed the crowds. My cheeks are sore from smiling all day long."

Leonard acknowledged that it was nice to get his first Ryder Cup wins, but for reasons other than you might expect.

"Sure, it's good to get a couple points," he said. "But, this time around, I'm just trying to really enjoy the week more because I haven't been here in a while and I think I appreciate it more this week than I did in '97 or '99.

"You know, after I made a couple teams in a row I kind of thought, well, the Ryder Cup will be my deal for a while. Well, it hasn't been. I certainly didn't know how much I missed it until getting back here this week and playing today."

And nobody knew just how much American golf had been missing Justin Leonard, who made a birdie putt at No. 12 to put his team 2-up with six holes to play in the afternoon four-ball match. Two holes later, his chip-in closed out the victory.

The Leonard-Mahan team will go off second this morning against Jimenez and Graeme McDowell. What a difference a day makes. Suddenly, it is the U.S. that appears to have unbeatable combinations.

"I respect everybody on Europe's team," Azinger said. "What's on paper doesn't mean anything to anybody."

True. But having Leonard - and the memories of Brookline that travel with him - back on the course is a substantial boost for the Yanks' hopes.

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