When Leonard was about eleven, something clicked and he started taking lessons from Randy Smith, then and now the head pro at Royal Oaks. "He was just this little spindly legged kid," Smith recalls. "But from the start he was extraordinarily inquisitive and open-minded. He'd try literally everything I suggested—try hard to make things work, and if they didn't, he'd let me know. I've said for years that Justin is the one responsible for me coming to understand what teaching golf is all about, because of the way he challenged me. He always wanted to know more, know why."
Leonard was small for his age growing up, which ultimately worked to his advantage. At junior tournaments, he regularly competed against kids in his bracket who outdrove him by sixty, eighty and a hundred yards, but he learned to beat them by staying patient and playing to his strengths. "Inside fifty yards, Justin was on offense. He could get up and down from anywhere," Smith says. Another thing Leonard had going for him, according to Smith, was a fear of embarrassment: "Most junior players—most college players, for that matter—will throw up their hands once they make a few mistakes and start making double bogey, double bogey, double bogey. But Justin never gave up. For him, seventy-four beat seventy-five, and seventy-five beat seventy-six—one stroke better was one stroke less embarrassing. He was a hard-nosed little competitor. His grandfather was that way and his father was, too—hard-driven for success."
When Leonard reached his early teens, he was regularly invited—or condemned, depending on how you look at it—to play with his father and his pals in what Smith calls "the nuttiest foursome at Royal Oaks." They threw head covers during backswings, engaged in psychological warfare and shot at water snakes in the creek beds with a revolver. For a scrawny kid with embarrassment issues, this was a tough crowd to play in, but in terms of developing focus and mental toughness, it was a growth opportunity.
"I can't put my finger on any one pivotal moment when I broke through," Leonard told me last fall, a few days after the Valero Texas Open, in an interview at his house in the tony Highland Park residential enclave near downtown Dallas. In person, Leonard's light brown eyes appear several shades milder than they do peering out from beneath the visor of his Ben Hogan cap, stalking balls. He moves with a kind of contained energy, seemingly always attending to something else, halfdistracted, and yet paradoxically hyper-responsive to those around him. On the day we talked, belying his preppie persona, he wore shorts, a gray T-shirt and flip-flops. His hair, indifferently combed, flopped onto his forehead. "I feel as if I was always making slow, gradual improvement," he said, "but never any leaps. Each time I moved up into an older age bracket, for the first year or two the older kids would really blow it past me, but the strength of my game was course management, so I didn't feel particularly overwhelmed or intimidated. I just tried to keep working on things and not get too far ahead of myself."
Leonard doesn't get too far behind himself, either. It's striking, especially in comparison to some Tour pros who seem to recall every shot and every round they ever played, how many scores and even tournaments Leonard has forgotten. Nevertheless, the following highlights can be cited: As a thirteen-year-old, he won one of the first American Junior Golf Association championships he entered. While at Lake Highlands High School, he twice won the state individual championship and led his team to one state title, then followed with more success at the University of Texas: four consecutive Southwest Conference individual titles (a record that will live forever, since the Southwest Conference has since disbanded), three first-team all-American honors and, in the summer after his sophomore year, the 1992 U.S. Amateur championship. He turned pro shortly after graduating with a business degree in the spring of 1994 and finished third in his third start, at the Anheuser-Busch Classic. Using sponsor exemptions the rest of the summer, and a clutch final-round sixty-nine in his last event of the year, the Texas Open, Leonard secured by a whisker his Tour card for 1995. That year he made twenty-five cuts, had seven top-ten finishes and wound up twenty-second on the money list. He hasn't looked back since.
"Everything in Justin's life was very together, very organized, even back in college," says Tom Kite, who got to know Leonard through his continuing involvement with UT golf. "Couple that with his very good golf swing, and it didn't surprise anybody he did as well as he did. The only advice I gave him was to stay amateur for as long as possible, but that was only so he wouldn't come out on Tour and start competing against me."