Justin Leonard had a comfortable family life in a popular Colorado ski town when the idea first popped into his head shortly before turning 49 in the summer of 2021.
Did the 12-time PGA Tour winner and major champion want to return to the competitive arena on the PGA Tour Champions or continue with his second career as a television analyst for NBC/Golf Channel? As an individual who preferred not to multi-task, Leonard made the conscious decision to jump back into the fray upon turning 50 the following summer.
So, last year, Leonard started cutting back his TV schedule to ready himself for a second stint as a touring professional. Playing with his now-16-year-old son Luke made the preparation more enjoyable. And moving to golf-friendly Tequesta, Fla., from Aspen, where the courses are covered with snow half the year, was far more conducive for the 1992 U.S. Amateur champion to sharpen his game.
Plus, he’d still have time to attend his kids’ lacrosse and soccer games.
Despite being eligible for last year’s U.S. Senior Open at Saucon Valley Country Club, Leonard realized his game wasn’t quite ready to face the likes of Padraig Harrington, Steve Stricker and the rest of the top PGA Tour Champions stars.
So, he eased into it, making four starts in July/August and then going full bore in 2023. In nine events this season, Leonard owns four top-10s, including a share of fourth in the American Family Insurance Championship earlier this month. This week, he’ll put his game to the test in the 43rd edition of the U.S. Senior Open.
“The nice thing is I’ve got the full support of my family,” said Leonard of his wife, Amanda, and four children. “I’m not gone more than I was doing television. It’s about the same schedule. The nice thing is I can really choose my own schedule.”
Before easing into television in 2015 and leaving the PGA Tour in 2017, Leonard enjoyed plenty of success, first as an amateur and then 24 years as a touring pro, which included victories in the 1997 Open Championship at Royal Troon and the 1998 Players Championship. In 70 major championship starts, he posted 11 top 10s, including playoff losses in the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie and 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
As an amateur, Leonard not only defeated Tom Scherer at Muirfield Village to claim the Havemeyer Trophy, but he won the 1994 NCAA individual title for the University of Texas and consecutive Western Amateurs (1992-93). His performances earned him spots on the 1992 USA World Amateur Team and 1993 Walker Cup side that posted a 19-5 victory at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn.
After graduating from Texas in 1994, Leonard, through a series of strong finishes on sponsor’s exemptions, joined Gary Hallberg, Scott Verplank and Phil Mickelson as the only players to earn a PGA Tour card sans Qualifying School.
Five years later, Leonard was involved in one of the most significant Ryder Cup moments in the biennial competition’s history, holing a 45-foot birdie putt on The Country Club’s 17th hole to complete one of the greatest comebacks in event history and help the USA rally from a four-point deficit in Sunday singles.
As his career on the PGA Tour began to reach the back nine in 2015, Leonard moved to Colorado. Golf Channel hired him that year, and after some early turbulence, he comfortably settled into his new gig, offering thoughtful and poignant comments during the game’s biggest events.
Seeing the game from the other side of the podium provided Leonard a different perspective, learning that even the game’s best players are not always perfect, and mistakes will happen.
Playing and practicing over the past two years at places like the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, with successful tour stars such as Shane Lowry, Patrick Cantlay and the Korda sisters (Nelly and Jessica), also gave him a mental and physical boost.
“Getting to watch them practice, what they work on and occasionally asking a question or two [off the record],” said Leonard. “It’s been an advantage, and it’s helped me think a little differently.
“From a course management standpoint, the game’s changed a lot over the last five to 10 years. So many times, all the data says to push it down there as far as you can. I think at a place like [SentryWorld], sometimes you’ve got to pick your spots, certainly when the rough is like this.”
As a veteran of majors, especially the U.S. Open where competitors face the toughest tests, Leonard compared SentryWorld to some of the most difficult venues he played as a PGA Tour member. With rough as high as 6 inches deep, putting the ball in the fairway will be paramount to playing well.
That should play into Leonard’s strengths.
“I’m pretty good at hitting fairways, getting the ball in play,” said Leonard, who is paired with two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and 1996 Open champion Tom Lehman. “I’m a little bit more of a cerebral strategy guy. I’m not going to overpower anything. There’s some chances guys can take and overpower a little bit, but I think there’s plenty of room for a guy like me who hits it maybe just more than average length to grind it out on a golf course like this.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.