28 Jan 2020 | Professional golf |

Week for the ages for white-hot Aussies

by Martin Blake

Marc Leishman (left) followed Lucas Herbert into the winners' circle.
Marc Leishman (left) followed Lucas Herbert into the winners' circle.

“Let’s get down to Amanda (Balionis) with Marc Leishman.”

So went the routine of the CBS network’s US PGA Tour broadcast from Torrey Pines on Monday morning, our time, as another Australian brought home the chocolates.

Leish, the big man from Warrnambool, uttered a few words before the TV picture went fuzzy, then blank.

They came back to him, of course, but the moment seemed lost.

Somehow, Leishman always finds a way to keep his ridiculously low profile.

It’s hard to think of a world top-20 player – and he is back in that elite group after the weekend’s one-shot win at the Farmers Insurance Open – who attracts less global attention.

Well-known American sports writer Alan Shipnuck’s infamous tweet, from a few years ago when Leishman was threatening to win an Open Championship, comes to mind: “Marc Leishman is a nice fellow, and clearly a good player. But with this leaderboard it will be a monumental letdown if he wins this thing.”

It’s hard to pin down why Leishman is looked upon in that way. It probably does not bother him too much, since he’s set his family up for life and earnt plenty of respect within the locker room. But it just seems to be the case that he will remain that understated, underappreciated figure.

It shouldn’t be. Leishman is unequivocally an all-time great of golf in Australia.

When you shoot 65 with eight birdies to win a $US7.5 million event, coming from four shots back with the world’s No.2 player (Rory McIlroy), No. 3 (Jon Rahm) and No. 7 (Tiger Woods) all in contention, you are doing something very right.

Leish has been doing it for 12 years out on tour and doing it in different ways, too. Generally, he will grind down a field with his relentless play; pure irons and great putting. He’s a player without an obvious weakness. But on this occasion, he ran them down from behind yet his ball-striking, especially off the tee, was off key.

In that remarkable final round at Torrey Pines’ south course, he hit just three fairways all day. Three! If you wondered about the context of that statistic, consider this: it’s the equal low for a tournament winner on the US Tour in the past 30 years.

Needless to say, the flat stick was red hot. “I’ve probably putted the best I ever have,” he said. When Rahm challenged near the end, Leishman laid up at the par-five 18th, wedged to just outside two metres, and rolled in the putt. No histrionics needed, but a little Leish celebration with a fist pump.

He has five wins on the US Tour, and four of those have been since 2018. Again for context, Ian Baker-Finch won twice in America, the same as Wayne Grady. Robert Allenby won four times. Stuart Appleby had nine and Geoff Ogilvy eight. It’s the toughest school and Leishman is right up to his neck in it.

His story is pure golf. His father, Paul, was Warrnambool club champion and Marc won that title in his teens. He has the same caddie – another Warrnambool boy, Matt Kelly – that he started out with. Leishman played junior golf with Kelly and they seem inseparable.

His wife Audrey almost died in 2016 of toxic shock, her husband actually being told at one point that it was unlikely she would survive. Together, they have formed the Begin Again Foundation that raises funds and awareness of sepsis and worked tirelessly in that area.

Marc Leishman is much the same person he was when he stepped out on the golf tour and most of all, he is really, really good.

Then there is Lucas Herbert, another country boy from Victoria who won the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour at the weekend, his first professional victory at 24.

Herbert already has been to hell and back in the professional sense. He was a gun amateur, and he had a breakout year on the European Tour in 2018-19 before contracting the second-year blues. He was involved in a nasty rules “snafu” last February in Dubai where a camera caught him scraping the ground near his ball in a sandy waste area, and he suffered not only a two-shot penalty but some subsequent criticism.

His game went backwards, and when he came home towards the end of 2019, he was lonely, missing his family and friends, and questioning whether he ever wanted to go back.

"Halfway through the year, when I came home from the Irish and Scottish Opens, I didn't even know if I wanted to play any more because I just didn't enjoy the game," Herbert said.

"I was playing great, but I didn't enjoy the game, didn't enjoy a round, didn't enjoy the many sacrifices that you have to make to play well.

"I just was not in a place where I wanted to make them. I was like, 'If I lose my Tour card this year, I'll happily go home and get a job as a chippy or a carpenter or something like that’."

He’s way too good for that.

Now he has a two-year exemption in Europe, he can pick and choose where he plays. He’s 24 and he’s a big part of the new breed emerging in Australian golf.

The 2020 calendar year has produced four Australian wins already, an incredible start, after Wade Ormsby (Hong Kong) and Cameron Smith (Hawaii) saluted on the same weekend. And the women are only warming up.

May it be one to remember.

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