Lake Highlands native Justin Leonard started out at Royal Oaks Country Club pounding balls like hundreds of other junior golfers. Today, he is one of the top professional golfers in the world.
The first hint of Leonard’s future success came when he led the Lake Highlands High School Wildcats to a 5A state golf title in 1990. He moved on to the University of Texas, where he captured four straight Southwest Conference golf titles (the first player ever to accomplish that) and won the 1992 U.S. Amateur. His final college match was an individual victory in the 1994 NCAA Golf Championship at Stonebridge Ranch in McKinney.
Since turning pro in the fall of 1994, Leonard, 26, has risen rapidly to the top of the golf world. His first professional victory came in the 1996 Buick Open in Grand Blane, Mich. He followed with wins in the 1997 Kemper Open outside of Washington, D.C., and the 1997 British Open, one of professional golf’s four major championships worldwide, where he staged the biggest final-round rally (five shots) this century to claim golf’s oldest trophy.
Leonard started 1998 just as successfully, capturing the Players Championship (with a $720,000 first-place prize) and finishing tied for eighth in the Masters tournament at Augusta, Ga. His Masters finish was his fourth consecutive top 10 finish in a major golf championship.
In less than four years, Leonard has won more money faster than any player in professional golf history. He topped the $1 million mark in 1998 prize winnings in mid-April.
Despite his worldwide success, Leonard hasn’t forgotten his roots. He still lives in Dallas, less than two miles from his parents, Larry and Nancy, where he often goes for a home-cooked meal while in town.
He also has received honors close to home, including the Field Scovell Sportsmanship Award, which is the Dallas All Sports Association’s most prestigious prize.
Leonard remains active in our community, still working at Royal Oaks with head pro Randy Smith on a regular basis. He recently returned to Lake Highlands High School to speak at the Breakfast of Champions, which salutes high achievers in school.
After his speech at LHHS, Leonard sat down with Advocate Publisher Rick Wamre and neighborhood freelance golf writer and author Art Stricklin to be featured in our annual unedited, verbatim interview with a neighborhood newsmaker. Here, Leonard talks about his life, his profession and his ever-increasing fame.
PLAYING WITH THE BIG BOYS
ADVOCATE: Did it take some getting used to competing with golfers you watched on TV for many years?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I’ve become friends with a lot of the guys I watched on TV. It’s fun. It took a little while getting used to bumping into Curtis Strange in the locker room. I’ve given him a hard time.
When you used to go out to see the Byron Nelson (tournament in Dallas), did you ever get autographs?
Yes. I have a hat that I got Tom Watson’s and Ray Floyd’s autograph. I would spend time out at the 18th green.
What’s the neatest thing that’s happened since turning pro? Someone you always wanted to meet that you have now met?
Actually, the first pro tournament I played in as an amateur was in 1993 at Bay Hill, while on spring break. I went out to the course on Monday; Randy (Smith) had told me to introduce myself to the head pro and the director of golf there, Jim Dean, who was a friend of Randy’s. He offered to find a game for me, and I said great. I’m out hitting balls, and Jim said he had found a game for me about 10 a.m., so I said: That’s great. So at 9:45, out to practice tee comes Arnold Palmer. The first practice round at a professional tournament, and I’m playing with Arnold Palmer.
That’s when I first kind of realized how cool this was and what I was able to do.
Did you feel like asking hime for an autograph?
Actually, I was nervous just playing with him. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him for an autograph.
What was it like playing with him? What do you remember about it?
I remember how genuine he was, in talking about the golf course, things to watch for. I think he’s always been the greatest ambassador to the game.
At that time, I didnt know him as well as I do now. Just seeing how much he cared about the golf course, the tournament, the players, in making sure I had everything I needed – I think that was really special.
Do you feel comfortable when you see other big names now and in calling them by their first names?
No, no. Arnold, I can call “Captain,” Mr. Nelson is “Mr. Nelson,” so those guys are special. I can call Curtis (Strange) and Tom (Kite) by their first names, but those other guys, you just can’t do that.
THE SPORTING LIFE
When you’re walking down the fairway, do you pick out individual faces among the spectators and look for people you know, or is that just a big blur?
When the tournament is here in Dallas, I try to pick out people and say hello. Obviously, there are times that are good for that and times that aren’t so great for that.
Usually if I’m traveling or on the road, I pretty much know if a friend of mine is going to be gallery, so I can look for them. Here in Dallas, I try to find people as much as I can, if that permits itself.
Most people have an impression that life on the professional golf tour is glamorous. Is that accurate?
I think getting to travel is nice, but again, to an extent, it isn’t a lot of fun. When you’re talking about 35 weeks of the year being on the road, it’s more than just packing up a little tote bag and hopping on a plane.
It’s a lot of hotels, but I’ve got some good friends on the tour who have some similar schedules to mine, so it’s pretty easy to find someone to go to dinner with and do things like that.
I think the glamorous travel bit is OK, but you don’t always see the other side of that.
Could you briefly describe what you do during a week you’ll be playing in a tournament?
Usually, I get in on Monday afternoon, work out and eat dinner. On Tuesday morning, I play a practice round between 8:30 to 10, and then lunch; sometimes play in a shootout, practice, work out if time, then dinner.
Wednesday is pro-am day at most tournaments, so I usually play pretty early, around 7 a.m. I like to play early because it seems to play faster earlier in the day; then I usually go to the media room Wednesday afternoon if requested and spend 1-2 hours practicing.
Once the tournament starts, I get into the same routine – get up 2-3 hours ahead of tee time, take time eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, so I’m not in a big hurry.
I like an hour to practice and warm up before teeing off.
Are there some particular guys you look for when you get to a tournament, certain friends?
Absolutely. There are guys who get in on Monday. If I don’t know what hotel they’re staying at, I’ll leave a note on their locker, wanting to meet for dinner or something.
Who do you like to hang out with?
Davis (Love), Mike Holbert, Jeff Sluman, Doug Martin is a good friend, Dudley Hart, Omar Uresti, Harrison Frazer. Harrison and I were roommates one year at Texas. There’s a bunch of guys I get along with pretty well.
As things are getting a little more competitive during a tournament, do you hang out with your friends more, or less?
No, I wouldn’t say it changes any whether we’re really competing against each other or if we’re both in contention. There are weeks where their families (like Curtis’) are out, so I might not see him as much as when his family is not out.
A good example is the Buick Open two years ago. Bob Tway and I were going to play on Sunday; afterwards, I got a message on my locker saying join us for dinner.
I walk in, and there is Bob Tway and his brother, Scott, who caddies for him, and we all had dinner together. We played the tournament the next day and then flew down to Lexington Monday morning for the PGA Championship, and I play a 9-hole practice round with Bob Tway and Mike Holbert.
I think my relationship with those guys goes beyond the playing conditions and being in contention.
What do you like to do during weeks you’re not playing? Do you schedule practice times? Do you like to totally get away?
I usually take off from practicing until about Thursday. I usually practice in the afternoons, beginning at 1-2 and going until five or six.
As far as things I have to do to catch up, my weeks off have gotten a lot busier since the British Open. I got home recently, and my parents had been collecting my mail, and I had this huge box. Just going through that and the autograph requests and the letters I need to write is where I spend most of Monday and Tuesday just doing that.
I don’t get so serious about it; I’ll get it done, but I don’t want to cram it all in where I don’t do a good job at it. I try to spread it out throughout the week and do some during the day and some at night. I’ll go over my folks’ for dinner, and spend time with friends.
Do you schedule two or three weeks off at a time or is one week pretty typical?
I haven’t taken two weeks in a row since 1995, so I think that after a week off, I’m usually ready to get back out and play. I try to play two to three weeks at a time and then take a week off.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
When did you begin playing golf?
My parents both play. I began at 5 or 6 years old. Grew up at Royal Oaks, playing there through the junior program and some of the City junior tournaments when I was 8 or 9 years old.
Randy (Smith) has been the head pro there since 1980, so I started working with him a bit when I was 10,11,12.
It’s amazing how good of friends we have become. He’s now my closest friend. Our history is what makes our working and personal relationship so close.
Did golf always seem easy to you?
No, golf has never seemed easy to me. I did OK in some tournaments, but I never took it as easy. One thing I noticed is that when I was in junior high, I would play with the high school kids.
I was getting beat most of the time, but it was because they were hitting the ball farther and harder than I was; still, it gave me something to aim towards.
What are some golf milestones for you?
I was playing with two gentleman at Royal Oaks, and I broke 80 for the first time, and I ran out into the parking lot to have the two men sign the scorecard.
I don’t remember the specific instance when I broke 70. One milestone is when I was able to hit my driver across the creek at number 9 at Royal Oaks – that was a big milestone.
Any holes in one?
First one was at Southern Amateur. My dad was caddying for me, outside of Birmingham, Ala. I was a UT freshman. Also have had a “one” at U.S. Amateur at Champions.
When did you first think about becoming a pro?
Always thought I wanted to, but actually seeing the possibility was when I was a junior in college after winning the U.S. Amateur. I played some pro tournaments and realized it was a real possibility.
What makes you different from the thousands of other golfers out there who love golf but just aren’t good enough to be a pro?
I don’t know. A lot has to do with timing, the right place at the right time. The year I won the U.S. Amateur, the previous year I didn’t even play because I was ill during the tournament.
A lot of it is being in right place and right time. I have some talent and a good work ethic, but I think there is some luck involved.
Where you cognizant of making a living at playing golf?
I think it was evident in working with Randy. He has a great family who supports him in his work and other areas.
How is golf as a team sport as opposed to golf as an individual? Harder as a team, or easier?
Very different. Golf is an individual sport. On a team, there are other individuals who go into the equation of winning. I miss being around a team. High school, college, I didn’t think about it as much, because I was around it at the time.
You and your teammates won a state title at L.H. Were you the favorite going into the tournament?
We had played well in district and regionals. First round of the state, we shot 297 or 296; previously, we had never broken 300 that year. Second day was similar. We had some talent on the team.
THE IMPACT OF FAME
Do you feel like a celebrity?
Sometimes. It surprises me to be recognized. I enjoy when people come up – usually, they’re saying positive things. I never mind people coming up and saying “hello.” It’s fun to watch people’s reactions. I try to have fun with people.
Any thoughts about fellow professionals who won’t give autographs to fans?
I think it’s not something hard to do (autographing). People might keep it for a long time on their wall. Fifteen to 20 seconds is not that long out of my life; it’s not going to keep me from doing something else. I try to be friendly to people. If they’re nice to me, I’m going to try to be nice back.
What’s with the guys who claim not to have time for autographs?
I don’t know. There are days when I have to say “no.” It’s just sometimes on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, in trying to get everything done, you can’t stop for 10 minutes and sign – you’ve got something waiting.
There are guys who don’t sign at all. There are occasions for me when I can’t, and some people might get upset and say: “He’s not such a nice guy after all.” That might worry me, but I can’t help it.
I loved the type of setting today (the high school) and being able to sign for the kids or their dads.
How does it feel to hear “British Open Champion” with your name when you are announced?
It’s a lot of fun. It’s not strange. I take a lot of pride in that.
How do endorsements come about? How do you choose them?
They come about many ways – playing in a pro-am with someone, an agent talking with different companies. I try to endorse products that I believe in, something I like and people in general will like. People who do the right kind of advertising and image. My endorsements include: Polo, Hogan, Kiawah Island Resort, Titleist, Footjoy and Ebel, the watch. A couple of things are in the works.
At your level, do you make more money from endorsements than from playing golf?
That’s hard to say, based upon the current purses. Over the next two or three years, purses are going to increase by 80 percent. Starting out, my income was greater from playing, but at this point, the endorsements are catching up, and hopefully will increase. Most of all the money I make is invested and used for paying expenses. Usually, that money goes into investment accounts or paying bills.
Can we call you a millionaire yet?
Yes, I suppose so. I don’t think of myself in those terms.
Does that affect your playing?
It’s never been about that. It’s about competing and playing and improving and doing something I really enjoy, and being able to do it with my friends and my mom and dad.
When I was 8 years old, that was the furthest thing from my mind – playing for the money. I just want to play the game. That’s why I don’t usually take two weeks off in a row.
If for some reason you couldn’t play golf, what else would you want to do?
Fish for awhile. I would have to do something – I don’t know, I would probably head back to school. I was always kind of interested in business law, not necessarily become a lawyer. I’ve got a lot of people and contacts, and if I should need a job, I feel I would be able to find one.
What do you do when you’re in Dallas? Where do you hang out?
Two or three favorite restaurants. I enjoy eating at my folks’ or my house. I don’t often get the chance to just sit around and watch TV. I enjoy taking it easy and relaxing or going to a Mavs game. I eat Mexican food several times.
Do you cook?
No. I can, but don’t.
What about role models?
I think it comes along with being an athlete and with success. It’s something I look forward to and take very seriously. I don’t take it lightly. There is some pressure there to do the right things. Hopefully, kids and parents will be able to see that in me – I am not perfect, not even close, and I know it. I try to make sure I’m doing the right thing, and that’s what being a role model is about – making the right decisions and helping people when you can.
What would you like the media to say about Justin Leonard?
That I did the right things, helped when I could, was well-respected. The trophies and awards are great, but it’s more about learning, friendships and gaining the respect of my peers.