Justin Leonard has yet to break through with a victory on the PGA Tour Champions, but with three top-10 finishes in his five starts this season, he’s inching ever closer. Last week was a home game for Leonard, who closed with a 67 and placed 10th at the Invited Celebrity Classic in Dallas. He even slept at his parents’ house while in the DFW, a rare treat that included nightly family dinners.
And the former University of Texas star is geared up for an even better showing this week at The Woodlands Country Club, site of the Insperity Invitational.
Leonard is still adjusting to the senior grind, as he’ll make his 10th official Champions start at a course this sits just on the opposite side of Kuykendahl Road from the Club at Carlton Woods, the site of last week’s first LPGA major of the season, the Chevron Championship.
And while he’s happy to be back in the routine of practicing and playing, Leonard admitted that he loved his time on TV, which started in 2015 when he joined Golf Channel. He’ll make one TV appearance at an event he’s synonymous with this year, but will steer clear of other broadcast productions to focus on his game.
“I think the only event I’m going to do this year is the Ryder Cup. I kind of made the decision last fall. Not that I played great in the events that I played, but I felt like I did well enough or showed enough good things where if I could put all my energy into playing that I could be competitive,” he said. “So kind of stepped away from my work with TV. Again, I’ll work the Ryder Cup this year because I enjoy being a part of that event. Those are, especially Friday and Saturday, a couple of really long days for the crew.
“It’ll be fun to be a part of that and step back in that world for a little bit, but it’s been nice just focusing my energy in one place, whereas last year, certainly at least there for two or three months, I was trying to do both.”
Now that he’s had time to look back at his tenure on TV, one thing that sticks out for the 1997 Open Champion is how severe the learning curve was. While others might have been instantly impressed with his television prowess, it took Leonard a while to get comfortable.
“Getting into broadcasting, there’s not a whole lot that can prepare you for that outside of going to school and studying journalism, which I did not. So that’s the reason I was so awful my first couple of years trying to do it,” he said. “It’s something that fortunately the people at NBC and Golf Channel poured into me and helped me get better over time, gave me a lot of reps, and I learned a lot along the way. I think that some of watching the best players in the world, how they prepare, how they practice, playing practice rounds, and then watching them in competition, I think those are things that now I’m able to kind of apply to what I’m trying to do to get ready.
“It’s been a fun process. I would say that the transition going from being a player in 2015 and ’16 to doing TV was not easy. It’s a little easier transitioning back into this because at least I’ve done this before, but it’s been a while. I didn’t really play tournament golf for about six years, and there for about four years of that or so, I played very little golf.”
Getting back into the swing of things on tour has meant stirring old memories, as Leonard did during his PGA Tour Champions debut in the 2022 Bridgestone Senior Players Championship at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Leonard recalled a night in 2003 when Phil Mickelson threw batting practice to the then-Double-A Akron Aeros, reportedly offering three $100 bills to any player who could hit a home run off him. None did.
Leonard overheard Mickelson discussing the plan with his then-caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay and he brought buddies Davis Love III and Fred Couples along to heckle Mickelson.
“He pulls in and we’re all sitting there, and Bones is kind of like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how this is going to go over,’” Leonard recalled. “Phil pulls in and goes, ‘Hey, guys, what are you all doing?’ I said, ‘We’re coming to cheer you on, big guy.’
“We went down and watched that whole scene. And Phil was all proud that nobody hit a home run off of him. And our kind of argument, ‘Well, you have to at least throw a ball 50 miles an hour to create enough velocity so it can get out of the park.’
Stirring up memories is great, but getting into the winner’s circle would be, as well. Leonard has improved this year over last and he feels he’s trending in the right direction as the season heats up.
But more importantly, he’s happy to be working on the craft that helped him win a dozen times on the PGA Tour.
“It’s a lot of fun. I knew how competitive it was from covering the Senior PGA a couple times with NBC, and it’s been fun like pouring myself back into my own game rather than 150 other players’ games, as I did with television. It’s been fun,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed putting the work in and trying to be competitive against these guys and playing on some golf courses like this week that I have a sense of history on. I played here five times in amateur golf, a bunch of Houston Opens here, so it’s nice to be back.”