Marc Leishman wasn’t panicking. But he readily admits his poor form after the PGA Tour returned from COVID-19 shutdown in 2020 was more than a concern, it was “frustrating and annoying.”
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Leishman won the Farmers Insurance Open last January before finishing runner-up three starts later at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The big Victorian was flying … his world ranking had him on the edge of entering the top-10, he was riding high on the PGA Tour money list and he was seemingly in career best form – all within a month of heading to Augusta for the Masters, a major he believes he has a great opportunity of winning.
Then COVID hit. The Tour shutdown for three months and during that time Leishman’s game went from the penthouse to the outhouse.
“It was very frustrating,” admitted Leishman on the eve of his title defence at the Farmers Insurance Open, which starts on Thursday at Torrey Pines. “I played really good at the start of last year and then once COVID hit, I lost all momentum.
“It sort of took me a long time to get used to playing with nobody around. I don't normally play on weeks off, so most of the time that I play it's at a tournament, so it was weird.
“But when you go through something like that, I think you've got to try and take the positives out of it. One, I didn't get COVID, no one in my family got COVID, and two, you can't always be on top of your game as much as you would love to be and that just makes you appreciate when you are playing well a lot more. That's why you celebrate your wins, and I celebrated this one pretty well last year. You know, it just makes you appreciate the good things when you do go through something like that.
“It was very frustrating, I had no idea what I was doing wrong, but we sorted it out by the end of October, by the Masters, which was good.”
The 37-year-old credits his career-long Melbourne-based coach Denis McDade for turning his game around during a flying visit to the United States.
“I wouldn't say I was panicking,” Leishman said. “I've had the same coach for 20 years, so he came over. Denis had to do that two-week hotel quarantine when he got back, but he was kind enough to do that to come over and help me.
“He picked it up after about a day or two, what I was doing. I would never have picked up what I was doing. So, I owe probably my play since the Masters (where he finished T13) to him making that trip and doing that.
“I'm not a person who panics easily, but I will say that I was getting pretty annoyed. I would get on the golf course and things would start going downhill generally in the first few holes. You get pretty down early on in tournaments, which is not a good spot to be in.
“It didn't affect my life off the golf course, but certainly when I was on the golf course I wasn't very happy shooting the numbers like I was shooting.”
A snapshot of his post-COVID form reveals five missed cuts and only a handful of sub-70 rounds. In the seven events he played through to the season-ending Tour Championship he was a head-shaking 51 over par.
Leishman’s time with McDade has turned his game back to what it was this time last year when he won at Torrey Pines. In fact, he’s probably playing better than he was when he claimed the Farmers Insurance Open. He played the two calendar-year opening events in Hawaii, shooting 14 under to finish 24th at the Tournament of Champions and 19 under to grab fourth place at the Sony Open.
“I'm feeling good,” Leishman said. “The Sony Open was great, I played well at Maui as well, just putted a little better at Sony.
“I didn't have my best stuff towards the end of last year after we had the break. I've got that under control now and that's in the past, so I'm ready to go for this week.
“Yeah, I feel like my game's in a pretty good spot. Obviously, it starts at zero Thursday morning, so you've got to earn whatever you get.”
Leishman has a soft spot for this week’s venue, Torrey Pines, having first played the layout as a teenager in the World Junior Championships in 2001. Since then, he has accrued a win and two T2 placings (2010 and 2014) across the San Diego course.
“It reminds me a lot of home, the grasses that are at Torrey Pines I grew up on at Warrnambool,” Leishman said. “It was my first trip to America coming to this golf course for the Junior World in 2001.
“You've got to be pretty precise around here, but there's places you can miss it. If you know where those places are and those places where you can't hit it, I think you can get it around if you don't have your best stuff, which I probably showed on Sunday last year.
“Yeah, I enjoy being here, I love San Diego.”