BOCA RATON, Fla. — Aspen, Colorado, is paradise if your perfect spot mostly requires a layer of fluffy white snow covering the ground and providing a picturesque backdrop. Then you can snowboard or ski or take part in any other activities that require temperatures dipping into the 30s.
And although Justin Leonard tossed in some biking and hiking while living in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, this was not his nirvana as he approached 50 years on this earth and decided to return to a more intense golf schedule.
Leonard needed a new home base, one in which the grass is green year-round. Golf’s epicenter beckoned.
Now, Leonard, 51, is 21 events into his PGA Tour Champions career after recently moving to Tequesta, Florida. He has advanced to this week’s TimberTech Championship, the second round of the Charles Schwab Cup playoffs, at the Old Course at Broken Sound after finishing tied for 13th at the Dominion Energy Charity Classic in Henrico, Virginia, two weekends ago.
And following seven years in the broadcast booth, he’s back to working on his game in year-round sunshine.
“There’s so much great golf here,” Leonard said of Florida on Wednesday before his pro-am round. “I don’t play a lot, I more practice or I’ll play by myself or with my son. But it’s just a great place weatherwise.”
Leonard watched the 50-and-over crowd mostly from afar as he worked on his second career as an analyst. And he was curious as to exactly what was the draw for so many on the back nine of their golf careers, some even surpassing typical retirement age.
His first impression was that the tour offered a group of men who, at one time, were at the top of the mountain in their sport to continue having fun on the course without the pressure and intense competition. A scaled-down version of the PGA Tour in many ways.
It has been all those things. But Leonard — who won 12 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1997 British Open, and was a member of the U.S. winning 1999 Ryder Cup team where he holed a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 17 to cap the Americans’ rally — found it was so much more.
Leonard was working as a broadcaster at the Senior Championship outside of Washington, D.C., when he went to the range on Tuesday. He saw about 40 guys out there at 3 p.m., and groups two or three deep waiting to tee off.
“It’s completely stacked up and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?'” he said. “These guys are working as hard as they ever have. So, yes, there’s a little lower kind of vibe on this tour, but the competition is every bit as good.
“For the most part, guys work as hard as they ever have because those are habits that got them to where they were in the game of golf and those things don’t go away.”
Leonard once again is the young blood on tour, but that does not mean instant success. He warned it would take time after spending time talking about the game instead of playing it in recent years, and that has proven correct. He has yet to win on the senior circuit, but this season he was runner-up at the PURE Insurance Championship in California and carded five top-10s.
Leonard qualified for the playoff by finishing 28th in the standings, which earned him about $832,000 in prize money. Not that a man who made just shy of $34 million on the PGA Tour after turning pro in 1994 is playing for the cash.
“I feel like I’m where I want to be,” he said. “I wouldn’t say the results are quite there. But I think that just comes with relearning some things and getting used to the rhythm of a tournament week and those kinds of things.
“There’s a few things that old habits creep into and it’s like … wait a second, that’s not me anymore. So it’s been a fun process. I’ve really enjoyed putting in the work and kind of figure out the balance between golf and the other stuff that I’ve got going on, and things with my family.”
And family was a big part of the move. Leonard’s wife, Amanda, certainly approved, considering that she grew up in North Palm Beach and attended the Benjamin School. Their son, Luke, attends Benjamin and is a member of the golf team, which makes him a teammate of Charlie Woods, whose dad is someone named Tiger.
Luke Leonard’s surge in golf coincides with the Leonards’ move to South Florida. Living in Colorado, the clubs “went on the shelf for seven or eight months,” Justin said this year at the Kitchenaid Senior PGA Championship.
“His skiing is actually pretty good,” Justin said.
Of course it was.
Last spring, Luke was paired with Charlie Woods in a junior club championship and played a round for the first time with Tiger as a spectator.
“It was cool,” Leonard said in the spring. “It was fun to watch him. I enjoyed not only watching my son play, watching Charlie play because he played great, and then talking about junior golf with Tiger for nine holes and little things that we see in our kids that they need to work on or whatever it may be.”
For Justin, he just keeps on working. Moving to the area means many more resources. He sees Daniel Berger and Eric Cole among others. He has “picked the brain” of Shane Lowry and Patrick Cantlay.
“There’s somebody always around,” he said. “And you pick up on little things … how they use their launch monitor, what kind of data it provides and how to rely on it. Those kinds of things.”
Leonard says he’s hitting the ball farther than he ever has, and not just the driver but his irons, too.
Now, it’s about the physical and mental side of his game coming together.
“Finding ways to not focus so much on the results, but more the process and those things, kind of adding that piece to it throughout this year has been fun,” he said. “I’ve seen great results at times and others I kind of forget and fall into some old habits. And so just trying to be more consistent in that way.”