The Anti-Tiger

With his old-fashioned style of play, Dallas native Justin Leonard is unlike any other young player in pro golf today.

The storm has missed the Metroplex, and sunny weather is spreading all over Dallas’ Royal Oaks Country Club. Justin Leonard, however, is just not in the mood to play. To keep up with the longer-hitting stars of the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour and pull himself out of a recent slump, Texas’ best golfer has been working out full-bore with a personal trainer. “I’m beat up,” the 28-year-old admits with a rueful half-smile as we settle into a table in the clubhouse dining room. “My biceps are screaming. I probably couldn’t even get the club above my shoulder.”

Boyishly handsome with a dimpled chin and close-set, green-gray eyes, every dark hair in place, Leonard is wearing a navy Polo windbreaker and matching rain pants with an oatmeal-colored golf shirt. If he looks like he stepped out of a fashion ad, that befits his endorsement contract with Ralph Lauren. If his look is decidedly retro, that’s equally fitting. In the era of the young, New Economy, cap-worn-backward golfer, Leonard is the old school poster boy. In a way he is the anti-Tiger Woods, the last of the great traditionalists. His breakthrough victory came in the 1997 British Open, a tournament that perfectly suits his old-fashioned game as much as his old-fashioned persona. “I just wish I could play golf in a tie and pull out some hickory shafts and get a mashie niblick,” he once told an interviewer, “but I don’t think my equipment company makes any of those clubs.”

That’s why this month’s British Open at the birthplace of golf, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, seems tailor-made for Leonard. Does he have a chance against Woods and the rest? The only consecutive four-time champion of the now-defunct Southwest Conference, a former UT all-American, and National Amateur champion, Leonard proved that he has the game to be one of the best in the world with victories in the 1997 British Open and the 1998 Players Championship. Then last September, with a 45-foot putt to clinch the Ryder Cup—which earned him the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline “The Putt Heard ‘Round the World”—he showed he might have the magic as well.

At just five feet nine and 160 pounds, Leonard is not a power player. Instead, he wins with his wits (he writes a column for Golf Digest called “Justin’s Smart Golf”) and fortitude, plus a putting stroke that has been described by one fellow pro as “pure gold.” With his relatively flat, baseball-like swing (at the finish, he looks more like Mickey Mantle than Arnold Palmer), his trademark right-to-left ball flight, his ability to play in the wind, and his competitive intensity, he’s a golf star—like Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, and Tom Kite—in the classic Texas mold.

Well, sort of. It turns out that he has a few quirks. “Justin travels with the biggest suitcase you ever saw,” says Mike Hulbert, a touring pro who is one of Leonard’s closest friends. “It’s absolutely huge. He can fit more in a suitcase than anybody I’ve ever seen, but everything’s perfectly folded.”

I’m a clotheshorse,” Leonard says with a smile. “I admit it.” Pro golfers are notoriously meticulous, creatures of exactitude—they’ll try to hit a shot not 150 yards but, say, exactly 154 yards—and Leonard, by most reports, takes the cake. “I’d call him hyperorganized,” Hulbert says. “We’ll get to a tournament and he’ll have his room confirmation number and his rental car confirmation number on a single page.” He has been known to hang his outfits in the closet in the order of the day he’ll wear them. It’s said he makes lists of his various lists.

The organizational skills I get from her,” Justin acknowledges, pointing a thumb at his mother, as his parents join us at the table. Equally crisp in a dark suit accented by a bright cranberry shawl, Nancy Leonard beams at her son, accepting the compliment. They are birds of a feather, it appears, with sharp, cautious eyes and an air of precision and reserve. Nancy admits that she arranges all of Justin’s mail by category: “This needs an autograph, this needs a letter, pay these bills,” she says.

I think of this as a family business,” Justin says. “I play. Mom helps with travel, logistics, mail. Dad handles my investments and advises me on my schedule. And my sister, Kelly, who works in public relations, handles local media—I hope to give her a rash of business this year.”

Larry Leonard, Justin’s father, dressed much less meticulously than his wife and son in an old yellow windbreaker, is a microbiologist who recently retired from his biomedical testing company. “Justin would tag along with me and my friends when we played on Saturdays,” he recalls. “Then one day he said he wanted to quit soccer and play with us because we were having so much fun.”

Oh, my, Larry and his group would needle that poor kid severely,” says Randy Smith, the pro at Royal Oaks and the only golf coach Leonard has ever had. “They just set about to agitate him. They would throw tees at him when he was hitting, start their carts as he was about to putt, cough during his backswing, whatever they could do.”

At least we never fired a gun when he was hitting,” Larry says with a laugh. “I guess we did about everything else, but it was to have fun, not to train him to be mentally tough.”

Now they’re all perfectly willing to take credit for me, though,” Justin needles back. This family, it’s clear, thrives on a steady stream of gentle teasing.

When Leonard was ten, he began to write essays about the exploits of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer—”After a few of those, my teacher told me, ‘No more golfers,’” he recalls with a laugh—and practiced his short game in the house. One hole, reputedly, went up the stairs, around the dining room table, and over the dog.

I never knew about that,” Nancy says, feigning irritation.

That’s because it

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