Justin Leonard sits in his Dallas condo doing what upwardly
mobile twentysomethings do--filling in his appointment book. He
reclines on a spotless taupe chenille sofa, props a pair of
polished brown loafers on a faux-distressed coffee table and
surveys the gratifyingly clean surfaces of his living room. "I
try not to have crises," he says. Actually it's more accurate to
say he doesn't permit crises. Find a crisis in Leonard's life,
win free prizes.
So what if, at 5'9", he looks from a distance like a kid.
Nothing else about Leonard suggests his youth. A buttoned-down
dress shirt and a conservatively cropped shelf of dark hair make
him appear older than his 23 years. They are also the signatures
of a consummate golf professional of the '90s. The keys to a
Land Rover and a pair of Armani shades complete the picture of a
highly organized young golfer and a "borderline anal-retentive,"
Leonard schedules everything. So when he says a PGA Tour victory
is imminent, one tends to believe him. "I've got a pretty good
plan," he says. His career is a progression so orderly it almost
undercuts his achievements. In 1992 he won the U.S. Amateur, in
'94 he won the NCAA championship, and along the way he took a
record four Southwest Conference titles. He did all this while
playing at Texas, from which he graduated in four neat years
with a degree in business. As a PGA Tour rookie last season he
was quietly excellent. He was in the top 10 of only one
statistical category--all-around, an amalgam of the Tour's other
stats--but he led the Tour in it while finishing 22nd on the
money list, with $748,793.
All that's left for Leonard to do is win something. In the
estimation of Tom Kite, who mentored him and fed him some of his
hot meals in Austin, "It's only a question of time. He's going
to win often, and he's going to win big." Leonard's agent, Vinny
Giles, the 1972 U.S. Amateur champion, calls him "the most
golf-mature young player I've ever seen. By all rights he should
have won already. He'll win before the end of the year."
March 11, 1996
Leonard almost won early in the year, at the Phoenix Open in
January. He lost on the third hole of a gripping playoff to the
only other twentysomething American player next to whom he
suffers in comparison, 25-year-old Phil Mickelson. But even that
loss represented another step forward for Leonard. Fellow Tour
players generally agree that Leonard played championship golf on
the final day, and had it not been for Arizona State alum
Mickelson's hot putter and hometown advantage, the result might
have been different. Leonard shot 69 in the final round to
Mickelson's 67, and when they went to the extra holes, the
partisan crowd (estimated at a Tour record 156,875) got vocal.
"Hit it in the bunker!" they yelled at Leonard. As he lined up
his putts, he heard, "Miss it!"
Even the most seasoned player might have folded. Instead,
Leonard got splotches in his cheeks and rammed in a six-foot
birdie putt on the first playoff hole moments after Mickelson
had made an eight-footer. Despite the playoff loss Leonard
declared himself ready to challenge for the title of preeminent
young American golfer. "I can't imagine a worse situation,
unless we got hockey fans out there," he says. "If you don't
learn from that experience, something is wrong. But I enjoyed
it, I fed off it. Knowing what I did helped me more than anyone
will ever know."
Even in discussing his toughest loss, Leonard is extremely
measured. There is a metronomic quality in his speech, in his
manner and particularly in his game. "I have the same swing
thoughts, every day and every week," he says. His routine tends
to be unvarying even when he is home. Take his newfound wealth.
There have been no wild spending splurges. His only big
purchases are the green Land Rover and the newly built
two-bedroom condominium in the Turtle Creek area of Dallas. The
latter he shares with his sister, Kelly, a 27-year-old account
executive at a public relations firm. They live five minutes
from their parents, Nancy, a housewife, and Larry, an
administrator at a medical lab.
When Justin was house-hunting, Kelly wanted him to look at some
older places that had more character and charm. Justin wouldn't
hear of it. "He said the newer places were cleaner," she says.
"He likes things clean and in their rightful places."
When Kelly moved in, one of Justin's rules was that she would
have to make her bed every morning. Notepads sit next to every
phone. "He makes lists of his lists," says Nancy. A perpetual
pile of neatly stamped and addressed thank-you notes sits on the
kitchen counter, waiting to be delivered to the post office.
Justin considers a big night out to be attending a Dallas
Mavericks game with his father or a trip to Snuffer's for cheese
fries. But when he's hungry he usually scoots over to his
parents' house for some of Mom's cooking. For relaxation he
drives 90 minutes to East Texas for some bass fishing with Randy
Smith, his teaching pro at Royal Oaks in Dallas. But they do
more talking and napping than actually catching fish. "I just
like the gear," Leonard says. "I like all the stuff. Lures.
The only thing Leonard does immoderately, it seems, is play
golf. He has been obsessed by the game since he was eight, when
his parents first began taking him to Royal Oaks. Smith
remembers a short, skinny kid who played with clubs that had
belonged to his grandmother and had been cut down. That summer
the Leonards drove to Destin, Fla., for a vacation. But while
the other kids on the beach were digging moats with their
buckets and shovels, Justin designed the world's toughest par-5.
It had a lot of water on it.
The golf motif carried over to school. While his classmates drew
pictures of farms, Leonard drew golf courses. He wrote essays on
Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Finally, in junior
high school, his English teacher had had enough. "No more golf,"
she said. "Choose another subject." So much for his interest in
English. When he got sick and stayed home from school, he
chipped golf balls indoors after his mother left the house. He
would hit wedges from one section of the split-level home to
another. "Up the stairs, around the dining room table and over
the dog," he says.
Smith knew he had a prodigy on his hands when Leonard won the
1986 Oklahoma Junior Classic at the age of 13. Leonard marched
through the Royal Oaks clubhouse carrying a trophy almost as big
as he was. He scheduled a lesson with Smith for the next
morning. "From that day he just wanted more and more and more,"
Smith says. "I was giving only five lessons a week, and two of
them were to him. I was busier merchandising. But he brought me
back to my mission fast. Because you don't often run into a kid
like this. A blind man couldn't have screwed him up."
Because he was so small, Leonard was accustomed to being
outdriven by 30 to 50 yards on every hole. So he learned how to
control and maneuver the ball. Here's how he played par-5s:
driver, three-wood, three-wood, one or two putts. "And he'd beat
people's brains out," Smith says. "He didn't have to be told
that he could play in the fairway and beat all those guys [who
were hitting it] in the trees. And he's never really gotten away
from that philosophy." (Most Tour pros have switched to metal
woods, but Leonard still plays persimmon because he believes it
is easier to control.)
If Leonard learned about accuracy from Smith, he learned about
composure from his family. He had to be calm to put up with the
antics of his relatives. His father was a particularly unnerving
playing partner. Justin frequently joined Larry and his golfing
buddies, a circle of local businessmen regarded somewhat warily
by the Royal Oaks staff because of their boisterousness.
Justin would step up to the ball, and a barrage of tees and
loose change would fly at him. As he took the club back, the
barking would start. "Basically, they liked to torture me,"
Justin recalls. They nicknamed him Jasper because, they
explained, they were trying to build his character. "It worked,
but that wasn't our real objective at the time," Larry says. "We
were trying to make him miss the shot."
The result was a player whose self-control set him apart from
his peers. Leonard's high school friends remember a kid who had
a unique agenda. His discipline made even his best friend, Chad
Senn, who would become his teammate at Texas and is now an
assistant pro at Royal Oaks, seem only casually committed.
Everybody else would put in nine holes and retire to the pool
for a hamburger. Leonard kept playing. At 7:30 on Saturday
mornings, while his friends were in bed, he was on the tee. "He
was focusing when the rest of us couldn't," says Senn.
His focus only intensified after he went to Texas. Despite the
demands of traveling with the golf team, he laid out a schedule
and stuck to it. He spent most Friday and Saturday nights of his
senior year studying, racing through 32 hours of course
requirements in his last two semesters. Even when he dated, golf
wasn't far from his mind. For much of '94 he dated Jessica
Wadkins, daughter of Lanny and a student at Wake Forest. They
met when he played a practice round with her father at the 1993
Upon Justin's graduation, Larry and Nancy agreed to finance
their son's early career in professional golf. They set up a
company, JL Enterprises, but they would make just one deposit.
Playing on a sponsor's exemption in his third professional
start, at the 1994 Anheuser-Busch Classic, Leonard finished
third and pocketed $74,800. That was enough to earn him playing
privileges on the PGA Tour for the rest of the year. He finished
the season with $140,413, enough to earn him a full Tour
exemption for 1995. Six months after they opened it, Larry and
Nancy dissolved the company.
Since then there has been just one ripple in Leonard's young
career, when he missed three cuts to start '95. But the control
freak in him kicked in. "I just didn't allow myself to get
depressed," Leonard says. He tied for fourth at Doral. He tied
for fifth at Colonial. He tied for second at the Western. He
tied for eighth at the PGA Championship. Then, needing a strong
showing at the Texas Open to qualify for the Tour Championship,
he finished second. A week later he flirted with the lead during
the final round of the Tour's most lucrative event before
finishing tied for seventh.
The playoff loss in Phoenix represented Leonard's third
runner-up finish in barely two years. In the process he has
demonstrated that while his game is not the most captivating on
the Tour, it is among the most complete. He won't try to hit a
high two-iron over water and stop it dead. He knows if he's good
enough with a wedge and putter, he doesn't have to try that
shot. Such discernment is almost unheard of in a player so
young. "A lot of guys get intimidated by the big names and long
hitters and think they have to try to do things they aren't
capable of," Lanny Wadkins says. "What I like is the control he
plays with. He stays within himself, probably beyond his years."
That control is a function, typically, of meticulous
preparation. The week before Tucson, on a bleak January
afternoon in Dallas, Leonard walked out of the Royal Oaks pro
shop and announced he was heading to the practice tee. Never
mind that there was two inches of snow and ice on the ground and
the wind was howling. Leonard parked his Land Rover so it would
block the wind. Then he chiseled away so he would have some turf
from which to hit. He hit balls for more than an hour. The next
day the weather was even worse. So he hit balls for only 45
If Leonard feels the pressure of being due for a win, it isn't
apparent. Outwardly, he is certain that he is on schedule. "I'm
ready," he says. "Before, I didn't quite have the confidence.
Maybe I would think, 'Do I really deserve to win this?' or
'Second place would be nice.' Those thoughts aren't entering my
mind anymore. Way down deep, I'm sure of it."
No doubt, he has written it down.