The 1999 Ryder Cup hero is on the phone from his home in Aspen, Colo.
Dylan Dethier: Colorado? That’s not necessarily a place a lot of golfers end up.
Justin Leonard: It’s not. Back in 2015, when we moved here, I wanted to step off the grid a little bit. I knew I was going to pull back my schedule or stop playing altogether, and it seemed like a good place to just slow life down. For my wife and me, for my kids, we love being outdoors, and it seemed like the right time and right place to do it. Funny timing, though. We’re moving to Florida at the end of June. My wife has family there. And it’s a lot easier for me to travel from Florida. Also, I want to be somewhere that I can play a little golf.
DD: You turn 50 on June 15 and have plans to compete on the PGA Tour Champions. What does 50 mean to you?
JL: Well, I haven’t thought a lot about birthdays the last few years. This one, however, I’m a bit more excited about. I’m excited to go play a little. I’ve been spending more time on my game and gearing up for the next chapter.
DD: Has time away gotten you hungry for competitive golf again?
JL: It was an interesting process, getting into TV. I learned a lot about myself when I stopped playing, like, What was my motivation? It wasn’t necessarily the competition; it was the process. It was putting in the work to try to improve and get better. I was able to channel that passion into my work with Golf Channel and NBC, so I haven’t necessarily been hungry for tournaments. But I’ve been excited to put in the time and effort and to learn where my game is now.
DD: How are your preparations different now from when you were playing full time?
JL: I’m kind of at the mercy of the weather up here, but I was able to get out when I worked some Florida Swing events. And I was just out in Carlsbad getting equipment dialed in. So I would say it’s going pretty well. I’ve gotten used to the fact that I don’t hit balls every day. I’ll go three, four weeks without touching a club. That means keeping things as simple as possible.
DD: You had a hot start to your career. Won the US Am. Two-time All-American at Texas. Straight to the PGA Tour at the Q-School. Given everything you now know about the Tour and the sport, is there anything you wish you knew when you were coming out of college?
JL: That’s a great question. Maybe the most important thing I learned over the course of my career is just not to take it too seriously. There were times, certainly early in my career, where I lived and died with it. If I missed a cut or two in a row, I was ready to blow things up and start over again. But you’re never too far away from some pretty good golf. Outside of that, I felt like I did a fairly good job of maintaining some normalcy—having friends on Tour and also outside of the game that kept me grounded when I needed it.
DD: The Country Club at Brookline is about to take center stage at the US Open. You’re at the center of arguably the most iconic moment in its history—1999’s “Battle of Brookline”—when you sank a 45-footer on the 17th hole to snatch the Ryder Cup from the Euros. How would you describe the course to someone who’s never been there?
JL: Well, it’s changed quite a bit since ’99. But, overall, it’s going to be a great US Open test. It’s going to require precision. But looking at how they’ve set golf courses the last few years, they’re also going to reward a guy if he can hit the ball a long way but keep it in play. It’ll be fun to be back up there; it’s probably been nine or 10 years. To see it set up and to see some of the changes they’ve made—I’m excited about it.
DD: You recently said that you hear about 30 Ryder Cup comments for every other comment you get about your career. Was that an exaggeration? Do you love it? Do you ever get tired of it?
JL: No, that’s pretty true. Unless it’s about the Open Championship or the Players [tournaments Leonard won, respectively, in ’97 and ’98], the other 50 weeks of the year, it’s probably between 20 and 30 to one, Ryder Cup to everything else. I don’t get tired of it at all. The Ryder Cup is different from everything else because people have a rooting interest. You’re rooting for the US, you’re rooting for Europe, even if you’re not from either place you’ve probably taken a side. When I won the Open, there weren’t many people rooting for me outside of my own family. Same thing at the Players. But when you can add a team element, where people have a rooting interest, that’s why I get the amount of comments I do. People were pulling for us.
DD: When you think back to that putt, that pivotal Sunday and the celebration that followed, what sticks out?
JL: It’s the moments that led up to that putt that made it important. It was Davis Love III coming back, when I was on the 10th or 11th fairway, and telling me he was going to come watch my match. It was Phil Mickelson sitting at breakfast, 45 minutes before his tee time, not going out to the range until he felt like we could win as a team. And then, all of a sudden, two or three minutes later, he didn’t say a word, he just got up and left. Even back to the night prior, Saturday night, when we got the pairings and thought, ya know, this is actually set up pretty well for us. It was all the little moments that led up to that putt even making a difference.
DD: You broke out that—let’s face it—hideous shirt at the last Ryder Cup, after you said it had been sitting in a closet for 22 years. How does it feel that perhaps the most famous moment in US Ryder Cup history came while wearing, arguably, the most dubious shirt in Cup history?
JL: [Chuckling] I get asked about the shirt often, just this past weekend in fact. Ya know, it was a nice idea, just impossible to execute. Portraits of all the winning Ryder Cup teams printed on a shirt? A great idea for, like, a quilt. Maybe the inside liner of a sport coat. But to wear that as a shirt? It was a bold move. Fortunately, it paid off.