What is Justin Leonard up to? The hero of the Country Club of 99 immerses himself in golf again


Justin Leonard was the hero of the 1999 Ryder Cup.

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The 1999 Ryder Cup hero talks on the phone from his home in Aspen, Colorado.

Dylan Dethier: Colorado? That’s not a place many golfers necessarily end up.

Justin Leonard: It is not. In 2015, when we moved here, I wanted to go off the grid a bit. I knew I was going to delay my schedule or stop playing altogether, and it seemed like a good place to just slow down. My wife and I, our kids, love being outdoors, and it just seemed like the right time and place to do it. Still, it’s a fun time. We are moving to Florida at the end of June. My wife has family there. And it’s much easier for me to travel from Florida. Also, I want to be somewhere where I can play a little golf.

DD: You will be turning 50 on June 15 and have plans to compete in the PGA Tour Champions. What does 50 mean to you?

JL: Well, I haven’t thought much about birthdays in recent years. This one, though, I’m a little more excited about. I’m excited to go play some. I have spent more time on my game and preparing for the next chapter.

DD: Has the time away made you hungry for competitive golf again?

JL: It was an interesting process getting into television. 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 get better and better. I was able to channel that passion into my work with the Golf Channel and NBC, so I wasn’t necessarily hungry for tournaments. But I’ve been excited to put in the time and effort and learn where my game is now.

DD: How are your preparations different now than when you played full time?

JL: I’m a bit 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 in Carlsbad getting the equipment ready. So I’d say it’s going pretty well. I’ve gotten used to the fact that I don’t hit balls every day. I’ll be three, four weeks without playing a club. That means keeping things as simple as possible.

DD: You had a great start to your career. He won the USA Am two-time All-American at Texas. Straight to the PGA Tour, no Q-School. Given everything you know now 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. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned over the course of my career is to just not 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. But you are never too far from good golf. Outside of that, I felt like I did a pretty good job of maintaining some normality: having friends on Tour and also outside of the game that kept me grounded when I needed to.

DD: The Country Club of Brookline is about to take center stage at the US Open. You are at the center of arguably the most iconic moment in its history, the 1999 “Battle of Brookline,” when you slammed a 45-foot ball into the 17th hole to wrest the Ryder Cup from the European Championship. How would you describe the course to someone who has never been there?

JL: Well, it’s changed a lot since ’99. But overall it will be a great test for the US Open. It’s going to require precision. But looking at how they’ve established golf courses in recent years, they’re also going to reward a guy if he can hit the ball from a long distance but keep it in play. It will be fun to get back up there; It’s probably been nine or ten years. To see it set up and to see some of the changes they’ve made, I’m excited about that.

DD: You recently said that you hear about 30 Ryder Cup comments for every other comment you get about your career. Was it an exaggeration? You like? Do you ever get tired of it?

JL: No, that’s quite true. Unless it’s the Open Championship or the Players. [tournaments Leonard won, respectively, in ’97 and ’98], the other 50 weeks of the year, it’s probably 20 to 30 to one, Ryder Cup to everything else. I don’t get tired of it at all. The Ryder Cup is unlike anything else because people have a vested interest. You’re rooting for the US, you’re rooting for Europe, even if you’re not from either place, you’ve probably taken sides. When I won the Open, there weren’t many people supporting me outside of my own family. The same in the Players. But when you can add a team element, where people have a vested interest, that’s why I get the amount of feedback that I do. People were shooting for us.

DD: When you think about that putt, that pivotal Sunday and the celebration that followed, what stands out?

JL: It’s the moments leading up to that putt that made it important. It was Davis Love III coming back, when he was on 10th or 11th fairway, and telling me that he was coming to watch my game. It was Phil Mickelson sitting at breakfast, 45 minutes before his tee time, not taking the field until he felt 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 going back to last night, Saturday night, when we got the matchups and we thought, you know, this is pretty well set up for us. It was all the little moments that led to that putt even making the difference.

DD: You brought out that, let’s face it, awful jersey at the last Ryder Cup, after saying 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 possibly the most dubious jersey in Cup history?

JL: [Chuckling] I am often asked about the jersey, in fact, last weekend. You know, it was a good idea, just impossible to execute. Portraits of all the winning Ryder Cup teams printed on a t-shirt? A great idea for, like, a quilt. Maybe the inner lining of a sports jacket. But wear that as a shirt? It was a bold move. Fortunately, it was worth it.

dylan dethier

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Dylan Dethier is a Senior Writer for GOLF Magazine/ The Williamstown, Massachusetts native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years fighting on the mini-tours. Dethier is a 2014 graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and is the author of 18 in Americadetailing the year he spent at age 18 living out of his car and playing a round of golf in every state.