By contemporary standards, Justin Leonard is about 10 minutes from the World Golf Hall of Fame. Not in terms of driving time, but induction credentials.
Leonard took a baby step closer to the St. Augustine shrine on Sunday when he won his 11th PGA Tour title and his third at the Valero Texas Open. It was merely a tiny movement because, as we know, Hall of Fame careers are built in summer, not fall.
Leonard now has the same amount of Tour victories as late Hall of Famer Payne Stewart and one more than Hall of Famer Larry Nelson. The difference is that Stewart and Nelson each won three major championships. Leonard, playing out of a slump at age 35 with a revamped swing and new team of helpers, has won one major, the 1997 British Open at Troon.
These days three majors seem to be the Hall measuring stick, especially for players with victory totals in low double digits. That’s why the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst was so important for third-round leader Retief Goosen. Had he closed, he would have had his third Open trophy in five years and one foot in the Hall of Fame. As it is, he’s at two majors with, most notably, Jose Maria Olazabal.
Based on recent voting, one can surmise that three majors on a golfer’s resume is something akin to 500 home runs or 3,000 hits for a baseball player. A few exceptions aside, achieve any of that and enshrinement is most likely.
Golf certainly has its exceptions. Tommy Bolt is in with 15 victories and one major. Another showman, Chi Chi Rodriguez, is in for eight titles and no majors but with a stellar Champions Tour record. Suffice it to say that colorful personalties helped the cause of both men.
Golf’s fairways are littered with many professionals with 10 to 21 victories and one major – from Lanny Wadkins at 21-1 to Steve Elkington at 10-1. Wadkins, a U.S. Amateur champion and Ryder Cup stalwart, should get in soon. Elkington is like Leonard – he’s a few minutes from the Hall. The Australian won the 1995 PGA and two Players Championships. He’d be Hall material had he closed chances at the PGA in 1996 and ’05 and the 2002 British.
A different bounce here or a different roll there and Elkington is closer to St. Augustine than the south side of Jacksonville.
In between the Wadkins-Elkington bookends, we have the active likes of Davis Love III at 19-1, Mark O’Meara at 16-2, Fred Couples and Corey Pavin at 15-1 like Bolt, Hal Sutton at 14-1, Jim Furyk, David Duval and Mark Calcavecchia at 13-1 and David Toms and Paul Azinger at 12-1.
Leonard must know how Elk feels about being close. Riding short but accurate driving and a brilliant short game, Leonard has made the most of his physical skills until the last couple of years. He won a U.S. Amateur. He became a Ryder Cup hero when he made a long putt heard around the world. He won a Players and finished in the top 25 in Tour earnings 10 times in his first 11 full seasons, including four times at eighth or better.
But what separates him from the Hall are two to four close calls in majors, depending on your perspective.
If he had parred the 72nd hole at the 1999 British Open, he would’ve had won outright. But he trailed Jean Van de Velde by two strokes as he walked up No. 18. Trying to make something happen, he hit a 3-wood approach shot out of rough, but his ball found the famous, fronting Barry Burn. He made bogey and, after the Frenchman’s celebrated blowup, lost the three-man playoff Paul Lawrie won.
He was even closer to the trophy at the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. When he missed a 12-foot par putt at the 72nd hole, he fell back into the playoff won by Vijay Singh.
Leonard also had good final-round chances at two other PGAs, in 1997 and 2002. In the first, he co-led with Love after 54 holes at Winged Foot, but Love won the two-man race by five thanks to a closing 66. In the other, he led the PGA at Hazeltine by three strokes over eventual winner Rich Beem entering the final round, but a closing 77 dropped him to a tie for fourth.
So add up the time that has kept him out of the Hall. Less than a minute at Whistling. Less than 10 minutes at Carnoustie. A couple of hours at both Winged Foot and Hazeltine.
It often has been said that golf is a game of inches. When it comes to the ultimate honor, it’s also a game of minutes.
Based on recent years, Leonard’s best golf might be behind him. That said, he’s at a prime golf age and still has a chance for Hall inclusion. In golf, all anybody wants is a chance, if not a wristwatch.