Justin Leonard and Notah Begay III developed a close friendship off the course as NBC Sports/Golf Channel analysts.
This week, their on-course rivalry will resume when the 50-year-olds make their Chubb Classic debuts as two of the more notable members of the 2023 PGA Champions Tour rookie class.
Leonard, the 1997 Open champion, and Begay, a four-time winner on the Tour, each got a taste of the senior circuit last year with Leonard competing in four events and Begay two.
This year, both are targeting a full schedule and getting reacquainted with the rhythms of the game.
For Leonard, who scored a top-10 finish at January’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai in Hawaii, that means remembering to take a break. He estimated that he took only a handful of days off between his final announcing commitment at the Presidents Cup last September and Hualalai.
“Every time I was going to take a day off I thought, I took six years off. I need to practice,” said Leonard, who last played a full PGA Tour season in 2015. “So I kind of overdid it. So you know, the last three weeks I’ve been at home I didn’t touch a club for a week, which felt great.”
Leonard said the mental side of his return to competitive play is a bit more challenging than the physical. After six years of analyzing other players’ games, he now has to break down his own and make adjustments in real time.
“Some things have come back naturally, and then others it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot about that’,” he said.
Overall, Leonard said he feels pretty good about his game after his strong start at Hualalai. Begay, however, said he isn’t sure what to expect since the Chubb will be his first event this season.
“Anytime you’re a rookie in anything, you’re trying to just get a sense of what’s happening out there,” Begay said. “I got a sense of the competition, and now I’m just trying to get used to the golf courses. It’s a new golf course for me basically every week.
“First event of the year, so I don’t have a whole lot of expectations, which means I’ll probably play well.”
Begay said one thing he learned from his pair of Champions Tour appearances last season is that the shorter 54-hole format isn’t as forgiving for slow starters.
“You’ve got to get off to a quick start; 72 holes you can sort of work your way back from the middle of the pack but not in these events because the players continue to shoot low scores deep into the tournament,” he said. “If you get off to a slow start, you really have to come up with a big round to contend for the event.”
As far as their TV commitments, Leonard said he’ll probably only be at one event later this year while Begay will be on the air for next week’s Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens. Both said they appreciated the network’s willingness to work around their Champions tournament schedules.
“Last year was hard trying to do both and find time to practice and play and all those things and still keep one eye on what’s going on on the regular tour,” Leonard said. “Since October it’s been nice to narrow my focus on one person’s game rather than 150 guys.”
Begay said he and Leonard have compared notes about their respective returns to competitive play. They also did get out on the course together from time to time when they were broadcasting and well, the rust was apparent.
“We were both not very good at the time so we needed some work,” he said. “Hopefully we’re a little bit sharper now.”