Justin Leonard’s career has been a three-decade-long evolution. He won his first PGA Tour event at the Buick Open in 1996, and just as he was settling into life as a Tour winner, the smooth swinging Texan became a major champion in 1997 at the Open Championship at Royal Troon. A year later, Leonard reached legendary status in the game by draining a 45-foot putt to help seal the U.S. victory at the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline, regarded as one of the greatest moments in Ryder Cup History.
These days, Leonard is still highly recognizable as a fixture on NBC/Golf Channel. He has settled into his role as an analyst for the network where his mindset and experience as a player have carried over into his second career.
LINKS recently caught up with Leonard while he was enjoying some down time at his home in Aspen, Colo. The 49-year-old dished on what he’s most looking forward to in the 2021–22 PGA Tour Season, his transition from player to broadcaster, and his upcoming playing career on the PGA Tour Champions.
Do you play much golf these days?
JL: I’ve actually played quite a bit more as of late. This past summer, my oldest son, Luke, who’s 15, got into golf and worked really hard to make the golf team. The combination of that and turning 49 years old in June has made me realize I’m probably going to play a little more. Our season here out west is kind of finished, but we went to Florida over the fall break with the kids and I played and practiced a good bit. We also have a place in The Bahamas where I can go with the whole family to practice and play.
With that magic number of 50 approaching, how much do you envision yourself playing on the PGA Tour Champions? Has Phil Mickelson motivated you?
JL: Well, if anything, Phil has been more of a deterrent because of how well he’s playing out there. (Laughs) It is exciting, though. I haven’t played competitively since 2017 but my family wants me to play. I’ve enjoyed the work on TV, and I hope to continue that as well as play a little bit here and there, but I need to see how it goes and see how competitive I can be.
I know I need to prepare and practice, so I don’t know if I’m going to play the moment I turn 50; at some point, maybe late summer, I would imagine I’ll go play and see how it goes.
You played competitively for almost three decades… Do you think you’ll be able to flick the switch and do it again after having been away from that arena for five years?
JL: I think it will be difficult to really be competitive right from the outset. The guys that tend to have a lot of success really kept playing either on the PGA Tour or somewhere else. It may be tough, but on the flip side I’ve had a front row seat to watch the best golfers in the world and I’ve taken a lot of mental notes on the things that they do. I hope that I can put that knowledge to some use; I guess it’s just a matter of whether my skills will transition quickly enough.
You witnessed first-hand the U.S. team’s dominating performance at the 2021 Ryder Cup while working for NBC/Golf Channel. Are we in for an extended run of success for this group of U.S. players?
JL: It’s certainly set up for that. I kind of thought it was set up for that after the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, but that golf course over in France in 2018 just didn’t suit the American style of play. But with the rookies playing so well and many of the Europeans, who have had a ton of success, starting to age out, there’s going to be some turnover for that team. Who is going to step up and fill the shoes of the Lee Westwoods and Ian Poulters? It will be interesting, but it certainly looks good for the Americans as far as team golf.
What’s the biggest storyline on the PGA Tour in 2022?
JL: Rory McIlroy has me excited. Seeing how well he played at the CJ Cup in Las Vegas, I’m curious to see if he can sustain it. He seems to go through these periods the last couple of years where he looks a little bit lost, and then all of a sudden something clicks and he finds it. I certainly think he’s trying to be less technical, which is a good thing. We all love seeing him play when he’s free and not really thinking much about his golf swing, and I think that’s a real key for him. I think he’s gotten bogged down a little bit over the last year or so with some swing thoughts and it seemed like he cleared out the cobwebs in Vegas which is certainly positive.
Was television something you always knew you wanted to be a part of after your playing days on tour?
JL: No, it wasn’t really something I had my eye on when I was playing. While I was still playing, I had a conversation with Joe Ogilvie, who is a good friend of mine. Joe had just done some work for FOX at the U.S. Open for their digital coverage. We were actually talking about some financial things and then we started talking about how the week went, and he planted a little bit of a seed in my head about television.
From there things happened very quickly. A couple of weeks later, I was playing in a pro-am and Steve Sands from NBC/Golf Channel was there emceeing the event. We grabbed a drink in a corner and started talking television. That conversation led to a phone call with Tommy Roy, the lead golf producer for NBC, which led to a meeting with Tommy at the Dallas airport where we talked in a conference room for about three hours.
After shadowing the crew at an event, Tommy invited me to do the Hero World Challenge in December of 2015. He put me in the 15th tower and I had no idea what I was doing. I made some mistakes along the way, but at the end of the week I felt like it was something that I could possibly do and excel at. It took off in 2016 and it’s been a lot of fun, especially trying to accomplish a common goal with a team. I feel like we educate and entertain our viewers at the same time.
From a workload standpoint, are there big differences between being a broadcaster and a Tour player?
JL: Yes, it’s just a different feeling, and a different atmosphere being part of a team. I see the players on the range on Wednesday when I’m doing coursework before a telecast. I’m able to keep up with a lot of guys, but once our show starts it’s not as much about the players, it’s about our viewers. I tell guys from time to time, we’re not talking to the players, we’re talking to the people at home.
It’s been an interesting process. Something I struggled with a little bit when I first started was realizing that the job is not to lift up the players, but really to educate our audience and entertain them at the same time. I think finding that balance is something that was a big goal when I first started doing it.
I really haven’t missed playing because for me when I was on tour, I got a lot of my satisfaction out of the work that I put in and trying to get better. I’ve been able to still scratch that itch with TV, which has been great.
Have you ever had a broadcasting moment that you regretted afterwards?
JL: I do that every day. (Laughs) I always think of ways that I could have said something more clearly, or maybe in fewer words. I think that’s where my mindset from playing has transferred into broadcasting because I’m always trying to get better. There’s not a day that goes by that I think, “Man, that was perfect.” I also haven’t shot 59 yet either, so like the game of golf I think I can always do better. If you’re not trying to get better, then you’re probably wasting your energy.
You’ve had some great back and forth with the guys on the set of Live From… on NBC/Golf Channel, primarily with Brandel Chamblee. How much do you relish the chance to debate Brandel on set?
JL: Well, that’s a double-edged sword. Brandel is so prepared and I have a lot of respect for the work that he puts in and the time and energy that he devotes to improving and getting better. I do look for those opportunities to have a bit of a debate, but it’s genuine. I don’t sit there trying to take the opposite side just because I want to pick an argument. Trust me, when you pick an argument with Brandel you better be able to back it up, because he’s so thorough in his research.
Does it ever carry over after the broadcast?
JL: No not really. There’s definitely mutual respect. We both understand each other’s position and it’s fun when we debate and disagree. Sometimes it’s more fun in the preparation than the actual show because there’s some things we can’t actually say on live television, but it gets said in the TV compound. We were both players, but I think we do see things differently.