Leonard bests Love to win Honda Classic

Sunday, March 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida (AP) _ Justin Leonard spent several days begging for tickets to the Honda Classic, trying to satisfy in-laws living near The Country Club at Mirasol.

He got dozens of family members on the course for the tournament, taught them some golf lingo off it, and then gave them a pretty good lesson in the final round Sunday.

He showed them how to chip it close, how to get up-and-down from hazards, and maybe most importantly, how to win.

Now he's afraid they might want a repeat performance.

Leonard shot a 5-under 67 in the final round, broke the tournament record with a 24-under 264 and beat Davis Love III and Chad Campbell by one stroke for his eighth career tour victory.

``There were some new people introduced to the PGA Tour this week, and I was responsible for a few of them,'' he said. ``The only problem is that I set the bar pretty high. Now they are going to expect me to come down here and win every year. I'll have to try to soften their expectations.''

Leonard and his wife, Amanda, were married in February 2002, and with her family being from nearby Juno, the Honda Classic was their first chance to see him play in person. It was definitely a learning experience.

``I owe this tournament a whole box of envelopes for all the tickets we sent to will call,'' he said.

Leonard, paired in the final round with his close friend Love for the first time since the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot, rallied from two strokes down over the final 13 holes to win $900,000.

``He did what he had to do,'' Love said. ``He only hit a few bad shots and made some great up-and-downs, so I feel like he won it. I knew what I had to do. I had to shoot 6 or 7 under to win, and I just didn't do it.''

Love, who won the 1997 battle, started the day 20 under and increased his lead with birdies at Nos. 1 and 3. Leonard also birdied the par-4 first, but was two strokes back heading to the par-3 sixth.

Love made his first of two bogeys on the day at No. 6, and Leonard rolled in a 15-footer for birdie to even the score.

But Love did little the rest of the way. He finished 3 under in the final round, but was 1 over on the back nine.

``I never really could get enough momentum going because I didn't make a whole lot of putts,'' said Love, third on the tour's all-time leading money list. ``I'm just disappointed. I didn't play well on the back nine. I don't want to analyze it that much.''

After his birdie on No. 6, Leonard also birdied three of the next five holes. He hit an 8-iron to 4 feet on No. 8 for birdie, chipped to 1 foot on No. 9 for birdie and hit a wedge to 2 feet from the rough on No. 11.

He called his chip on the par-5 ninth his biggest shot of the round because Love hit his second shot to within 2 feet for eagle. If Leonard didn't birdie, he would have been two strokes down again with nine holes to play.

Leonard pulled even with a birdie on the par-4 No. 11, stayed there with a nice up-and-down from a green-side bunker on the par-3 14th, then took the outright lead with a close chip on the par-5 15th. He moved to 25 under with the 3-foot birdie putt, then basically closed out Love with another up-and-down on the par-3 16th.

At No. 16, Leonard's 7-iron shot landed short and right of the green in the rough. Love then knocked an 8-iron shot into the green-side bunker.

``That's the one I'm going to kick myself the most over,'' he said.

Leonard's ball had what he guessed was sand under it and pine needles behind it, so he played a blast shot that landed about 8 feet from the pin.

Love ended up 12 feet away, but he missed the downhill putt when it lipped out. Leonard made his to move two strokes up with two holes to play.

``After that, I was forcing it probably at 17 and 18,'' Love said.

The lead allowed Leonard to play conservatively to win. Love, the only player in the field among the top 10 in the world, used a driver for the first time on the par-5 No. 17 and hit through the fairway and into a waste area.

He managed par after the penalty stroke, but Leonard also made par to stay two strokes ahead as they walked to the 18th.

``I made a couple of more putts that he did and a couple of key up-and-downs to where the last couple of holes didn't make much of a difference,'' Leonard said.