Victory speeches are often an overlooked part of golfing celebrations. In 1997, however, Justin Leonard gave a speech worthy of the Claret Jug he held, and of each and every name engraved upon it.
A supreme talent coming through in the 1990s, Leonard produced a marvellous run in the final round of The 126th Open Championship at Royal Troon to win The Open aged just 25.
But belying his relatively tender age, and indicative of the class he showed on the golf course that Sunday, Leonard overcame the surreal and joyous feeling of victory to give a speech that has stood the test of time almost as resolutely as his golf.
“The feeling was just totally surreal.” Leonard said after finding out in the scorer's hut that he was to be named Champion Golfer of the Year. “I finally let myself breathe and relax, just to kind of relax and take it in.
“I remember the press secretary of The R&A came in, after I’d signed my card, and he gave me some note cards with some names on it, as far as the Secretary of the Club and members of The R&A that he would like me to mention, those kind of things. I remember looking at the cards briefly, and then just getting ready for the ceremony on the 18th green.”
Leonard's cards stirred him to an opening joke, and helped him take in his surroundings. What followed for the Texas native was a speech with humour, grace, emotion and candour as he arrived on the 18th green.
“One moment please... I think it just hit me.” Justin Leonard In 1997
“Well, I was buzzing, I don’t think I walked onto the 18th green, I kind of just floated across! And yeah, I feel fortunate because I was given presence of mind, to just convey my thoughts.
“And I remember early in the week, watching Barclay Howard, the amateur, play well and he made the cut. And I think being close enough to my amateur career and Walker Cup which I played in ’93, I had a taste of what that was like more recently and so talked about him a little bit.”
“And then when I started to think, kind of for the first time, I thought of my parents, my coach Randy Smith, that’s when I started to get choked up and it started to set in what I had done.”
“And so, it was in that moment where I had to kind of step away, I mean a little bit like Dustin Johnson at The Masters this fall, where all of a sudden it started to set in. I’m not usually one for a loss of words, but in that moment I couldn’t (speak), I had to just wait for a couple of minutes.
“It seemed like 10 minutes, it was probably just 20 seconds. But I had to compose myself as I started to think about them."
Leonard’s speech, much like his play, will live long in the memory. And as he speaks about in the latest Tales of The Open documentary, it helped secure his place in golfing history.
“It was a special moment. I hear more about the speech that I gave there on the 18th green than about any of the shots that I played that day, and that's something that I'm happy and proud of.”
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