PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – He can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but sometime this spring Justin Leonard started to fall out of love with golf.
He was mired in a slump, one that would ultimately produce nine straight missed cuts. The hours of practice, the time spent on the range – the routine that helped him win 12 times, including a major – started to feel too much like work.
The more he tried to grind it out, the less satisfaction he received.
So at age 43, seven years removed from his last win, Leonard started to come to grips with his own golfing mortality.
It’s a curious crossroad for players as they age toward the Champions Tour, instilled with that same strong desire to compete but sometimes betrayed by fading ability. For Leonard, the biggest agent of change was a shift in priorities.
“I’ve just been out here 21 or 22 years, and my kids are growing up,” Leonard said after an opening 65 at the OHL Classic at Maykoba. “I get to do a lot of things but I miss a lot of things, too.”
A lifelong Texan, Leonard sat down last year with his wife and four kids and discussed relocating. The subsequent decision didn’t send the Leonards to a golfing bastion in warm weather, but instead to ski country in Aspen, Colo., where they have been since August.
The move signaled the fact that Leonard is both ready and willing to start paring down his competitive schedule.
“So many decisions I’ve made over the last 25 years have been about golf,” he said. “So when we started talking about moving, I just said, ‘Let’s just take golf out of it. Where are we going to be the happiest and most excited when we get on an airplane to go home?’”
After missing the FedEx Cup Playoffs, Leonard cashed in the second of his two, one-time career earnings exemptions. He is making his second start of the season this week in Mexico, where he finished T-6 in 2013 and now shares the early lead, but he plans to play only 12 events this season.
Leonard hopes to follow the late-career model set by Steve Stricker, and said he began talking to Stricker a year ago about how best to shape his schedule and how to make the most of his sporadic playing opportunities.
“I want to just play the tournaments that I’m excited to go play, and see what I can do,” he said. “It just feels right to me to slow down and spend more time at home, spend more time with my wife and my kids.”
Leonard’s plight is one that Jerry Kelly knows quite well. At age 48, Kelly has spent the last several years trying to balance time at home with his wife and son along with a full playing schedule on the PGA Tour.
“It’s tough. You miss an awful lot of stuff that you don’t want to miss. It makes you feel like a bad dad,” Kelly said. “It takes a support system, because it’s difficult. It doesn’t seem like much for the general public to look at it and go, ‘Oh yeah real tough, he’s playing golf for a living.’ But we are gone an awful lot, and we miss an awful lot. That pulls on the heartstrings.”
Nearly two years removed from his last top-10 finish, Leonard turned back the clock with his bogey-free opener at El Camaleon, finding his comfort zone on a course that rewards both accuracy off the tee and deft touch around the greens.
The youth movement that has taken the sport by storm in recent months is nothing new to Leonard. Following a decorated amateur career, Leonard won on the PGA Tour at age 24 and captured the 1997 Open Championship just after turning 25.
Now, though, the shoe is on the other foot: Leonard is the grizzled veteran, hoping to recapture his old form against an eager crop of rising stars.
“First I was five years older than those guys, then I was 10 or 15, and now it’s, yeah, these guys are half my age,” he said. “I think I just felt another gray hair pop in.”
Leonard is still mulling the prospect of a Champions Tour career down the line, but said he could just as easily retire well before turning 50. Amassing more than $33 million in on-course earnings across two decades can provide that sort of flexibility.
For now, though, he has a tournament to play on a course that fits his style. It’s an opportunity he plans to relish, since he’s not sure when – or if – he’ll have another shot to contend.
“Whether I’m meant to play another four or five or 10 years, or whether this is my last,” he said, “I’m perfectly OK with that.”