No need to see “The Shot in Dark”. Last minute tickets to a Pearl Jam concert at Blossom Music Center. Phil Mickelson ambushed with a cheering section while pitching batting practice for a now-Akron Rubber Ducks game at Canal Park.
Justin Leonard has not played at Firestone Country Club since 2010. But memories of Akron came back when he returned for his PGA Tour Champions debut in the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship.
Leonard turned 50 on June 15, but said he’d spent the past year and a half preparing for his move to the senior tour. Coupled with his schedule as a golf analyst for NBC Sports and recently moving his family from Aspen, Colorado to Jupiter, Florida, he had plenty to keep him busy, especially a three-day ride with his 15-year-old son and their four dogs. to their new home.
Leonard won the Claret Jug in 1997 and will head to St Andrews next week to broadcast the 150th Open Championship. But that won’t change his focus in the $3 million Bridgestone event, the fourth of five senior majors starting Thursday at the famed South Course.
“I’m curious where my game is,” Leonard said. “There’s a big difference between playing with friends or playing with my kids and pocket a scorecard and try to beat some of these guys. So I will say I manage my expectations. I expect to learn a lot from this week.
“But in terms of results and those things, not really thinking about that. I’m just trying to find my way back into competitive golf. I’ll be playing four or five events between now and the end of the season and get a sense of where these things are.”
Justin Leonard warms up in the practice t-shirt during the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship Pro-Am on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Akron, Ohio, at the Firestone Country Club.
Leonard’s good times at Akron remain fresh, though perhaps not his tie for second behind Tiger Woods in the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational in 2000, when eventual eight-time Firestone winner Woods defeated Leonard and Philip Price by 11 shots.
When asked where he was for one of Woods’ most storied finishes, Leonard said: “I think that was one of those years where he would win by 12 or something, so it’s not like I was on the range to getting ready for a play-off.”
Reminiscent of Woods’ margin of victory, Leonard added: “Yeah, so I won the B flight, which is nice. There is no trophy for that.”
Most of Leonard’s favorite stories come from off the track.
A year, in the days before he was immersed in satellite radio, he drove to the course and heard an upcoming Pearl Jam show mentioned. He found Phil Mickelson’s old caddy, Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay, a good friend who loves the music scene.
“I said to him, ‘I think Pearl Jam is playing around here,'” Leonard said of Mackay. “He said, ‘I’m working on it.’ An hour later we had tickets. And that night Davis Love and Bones and I drove 45 minutes to a great outdoor venue and saw Pearl Jam.”
Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard won the first point for Team USA on Day 2 of the Presidents Cup.
Another night to remember came in 2003, when Mickelson gave batting practice to then-Double-A Akron Aeros, reportedly offering three $100 bills to any player who could hit a home run from him. Nobody did.
“Maybe, maybe I didn’t overhear, but I overheard Phil talking to Bones about it, and he said, ‘See you in the parking lot at five,'” Leonard said. “So I put that away and told Davis and Fred Couples about it. I said, ‘Would you like to go and see?’ And Fred said, ‘I wouldn’t miss this for the world.’”
So Leonard told Love and Couples to meet in the parking lot at 4:50 PM so they could see the look on Mickelson’s face when he arrived.
“He pulls in and we’re all there, and Bones is like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how this is going to end,'” Leonard said. “Phil comes in and says, ‘Hey guys, what are you all doing?’ I said, “We’ve come to cheer you on, big fellow.”
“We went down and watched that whole scene. And Phil was proud that no one hit a home run from him. And our kind of argument, “Well, you have to throw a ball at least 50 miles an hour to create enough speed for it to get out of the park.”
“We’ve had a good time with it. Little things like that happen along the way that create nice memories when I come back to a place like this.”
Since Davis Love III was part of both classic stories, it’s no wonder he opened his press conference with Leonard’s Champions Tour debut.
“I walked out onto the field, entered Justin Leonard and got to play a practice round with him,” said Love, who appeared at Firestone for the first time since 2016. “In fact he put a note on my car on Monday because he changed his phone number and where he lives and his job and now he’s here and just excited to see him.
“It really made my day going out with him. Everyone comes up and calls him ‘rookie’ and they come from other fairways to welcome him. He asked me a whole bunch of questions about rules and procedures. I said, ‘ You have to ask someone else, I’m not the best to ask.’ But when we’re done playing, we’ll go to the pro-am draw party.”