Justin Leonard is one of only five golfers to have won multiple championships in Memphis (he was victorious in 2005 and 2008). The Texas native — who turns 40 five days after the final round of this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic — won the 1997 British Open and drained a 45-foot putt to clinch the 1999 Ryder Cup for the U.S. team.
Memphis is one of two places you’ve won twice. Safe to assume you’ve come to like the Southwind course?
When they transitioned the course to Bermuda grass a few years ago, it really changed the event. It went from being a golf course where you felt like you had to make seven or eight birdies per round to a much more difficult course, because of the firmness and speed of the greens. And it’s a fun layout to play, with some risk-reward opportunities. I don’t think it favors a particular kind of player.
Do you have a favorite hole?
I try not to pick favorites. A lot of how the course plays depends on the wind. The fifth hole can be very difficult when it’s into the wind. Eight and nine are challenging. Twelve is a very tight hole. And, of course, you have a lot of drama between 17 and 18, with water up the side of the last hole.
Any specific memories of your wins here that stand out today?
They were two very different wins. In 2005, I had a huge lead and played okay on Sunday, but David Toms shot a great round and made it interesting. My second win there, I hung in there all week, then played a good round on Sunday and was surprised myself to get into a playoff with Robert Allenby and Trevor Immelman. I was able to make a nice putt on the second playoff hole.
As the story is told, your wife had to convince you to play here before your first win in 2005. Can you share the details?
She’s done that a couple of times, looking at my record. She knew I had done well there [three top-ten finishes] and said, “Let’s go back.” A lot of times, no matter how much you love the golf course, it’s hard to make it work. We obviously had a great week [in 2005].
The tournament has been a longtime supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. How has St. Jude impacted you since you first played here in 1994?
I have four wonderful kids. And I realize how special St. Jude is, for the treatment they offer and the research they do. So many kids are treated there that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford health care. My kids are healthy, so I haven’t been through the experience that a lot of the kids and parents have who have visited St. Jude. But I certainly realize the impact they have. Having been able to spend a little time meeting some of the families, and when you tie that in to an event, and realize the impact you’re making, it makes it very difficult not to go back. I missed not being there last year.
The tournament seems to have a unique harmony between its title sponsor and St. Jude. Do you see these kind of connections elsewhere on the PGA Tour?
When I think of Memphis, I think of St. Jude and FedEx. Those two organizations are synonymous with Memphis, Tennessee. FedEx took a huge step in sponsoring the FedEx Cup. What a huge commitment, financially and from a marketing standpoint. I’m so happy to see them come back and realize how important that tournament is to the area, not that they ever lost sight of that. For them to step up says some incredible things about the company and their support of the PGA Tour. They’re doing everything they can to support the hospital and the event.
The FESJC seems to have a nice spot on the Tour calendar, coming a week before the U.S. Open. How important is it for you to be playing well entering the U.S. Open?
I’ve got to qualify for the U.S. Open, but if I’m able to qualify, the best preparation I can have is to play well the week before. Being in Memphis, playing at Southwind — a course I like — is very important. But Memphis is bigger than a warm-up event. The best thing I can do to prepare is to play well in Memphis. That’s my main goal.
Eleven of the last 12 majors have been won by players who had never taken one before. Is this healthy for the sport, the parity?
It’s healthy. Look at the season that Luke Donald is putting together, and his consistency the last couple of years. Look at Rory McIlroy and all he’s done. Lee Westwood seems to play great every week. Phil [Mickelson] wins a tournament and seems to get into contention every week. Then you have guys like Ricky Fowler and Keegan Bradley stepping up and winning golf tournaments.
For a long time, it seemed like everybody was focused on just five or six players, and I think that did a lot of players injustice. To have so many great players from all over the world playing well speaks volumes about the PGA Tour and the depth. That can be nothing but good for the game. It’s good to have a dominant figure occasionally, but I think dominance, at times, gets old. Tiger’s dominance was extraordinary, and he may return to that kind of dominance again. But as a player, it’s more interesting when you have a whole handful of guys who are the favorites, as opposed to one player against the field.