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At home in the mountains

10 Min Read

Long Form

At home in the mountains

Justin Leonard's Aspen home is far from the golfing world ... and he's never been happier.

    Written by Melanie Hauser

    ASPEN, Colo. -- Justin Leonard pulls into a parking space with a huge grin on his face and his Yukon XL loaded with boxes to deliver to the house he’s renovating.

    He got in his morning workout, packed up the truck and now it’s time to take a visitor on a tour of downtown, then meet his wife Amanda for an early lunch. On the way, he drives a few blocks for an up-close view of snowy Aspen Mountain and ski runs that frame one end of town. Snowmass and Buttermilk are off to the right and Roaring Fork River runs along the other end of town.

    After bowls of Miso soup, Amanda is off to hike a mountain trail and Justin stops by the new place to check with the contractor. The movers are scheduled for next week.

    As the wintery mix of ice crystals and mist swirls intermittently outside, he hangs skis in the garage and gives a detailed step-over, step-around and watch-the-saws-and-other-tools tour of the work in progress. Cozy neighborhood. Corner lot. Great views, including a stunning one of Aspen Mountain from his oldest daughter’s bedroom.

    That done, it’s off to the rental house a few streets away where the bears knocked the trash cans over again. He introduces Blizzy and Maggie -- the family Labs -- and points to the guinea pig cages that house General, S’mores, Oreo and Twinks. The kids’ athletic gear is in piles just a few steps from the front door.

    Life is easy these days. Nothing is more than four or five minutes away except Whole Foods and Roaring Fork Club which are a scenic and easy 20-minute drive. The family rides their bikes into town while the kids walk a few blocks to and from school.

    The leap of faith the Leonards made a year ago to move from Dallas to Aspen wasn’t really a leap at all. It was just a gentle nudge toward the next chapter in a rather full and blessed life.

    “We really wanted to slow down,” he said, “and simplify.”

    At 44, he’s still the same Justin Leonard in so many ways. That quick dry wit, sharp intellect and insightful reflection. His penchant for details, starting with an organized sock drawer. His love of the game. A depth of character that’s grown exponentially along with his faith.

    That his game hasn’t been as sharp as he wanted for several years now is a simple fact. It goes along with that mid-40s lull most players hit and, honestly, that’s OK.

    Golf, you see, is only part of Leonard’s life these days. Family and faith top the list, followed by a limited playing schedule and testing the waters as a broadcaster for Golf Channel/NBC. The PGA TOUR Champions is six years away – too far to really think very hard about.

    “For me, the stuff on the golf course is not going to make me any happier than I am,” he said. “If I play great or if I play poorly, it’s not going to shape my emotions whether I’ve had a good or bad day. It’s part of me, not all of me. Really early in my career, I think it was all of me.”

    It does and the Leonards are in THE perfect place.

    When his swing needs a winter swing tune-up, Justin hops a plane to Arizona for a day to get in some work. And now that Roaring Fork Club is open, it’s a quick trip to hit a few balls and maybe drop a line and fish for a bit, too.

    Justin will tee it up at The Open Championship this week at Royal Troon a much different man than he was at 25 when he came from five shots back on the final day to beat Jesper Parnevik and Darren Clarke.

    “Then it was all about the game and everything else was secondary,” he said. “Now golf has gotten pretty far down my list. That was before I became a believer and my faith has certainly changed me a great deal. And being a husband and being a father. It’s really, really different in so many good ways. All good ways.”

    Back then, Justin was single, it was just him and caddie Bob Riefke at Troon and he had played well enough to be two off the lead after both the first (behind Clarke and Jim Furyk) and second (Clarke) rounds. Then a disappointing third-round 72 left him five behind Parnevik.

    He was having a late dinner alone Saturday night when Barbara Nicklaus came over and said, “You know, you can still win this. You’ve just got to know that you can.”

    She was right.

    “It really changed my attitude that night sitting at dinner,” he said. “It’s something I’ll never forget. I said, thank you. And the next time I saw her, I don’t remember the exact words, but I know I thanked her and told her she really turned my attitude around.”

    He drew a great final pairing with Fred Couples, and the rest was history. As in a closing 65 and a three-shot win over Clarke and Parnevik.

    “I needed to go out and play aggressive and not worry about it early,” he said. “I made a bunch of putts that day and never really thought too much about winning the tournament. I was really able to just focus on the day and what I was trying to do and wasn’t too concerned about what anyone else was doing.”

    The next few years, Justin played some of the best golf of his career. He went head-to-head with eventual winner and good friend Davis Love III down the stretch at the PGA Championship that year, won THE PLAYERS Championship in 1998, lost in that three-way playoff to Paul Lawrie at the ’99 Open and had the iconic Ryder Cup comeback.

    “I was able to play real consistently through there,” he said. “I had some big moments and I handled a lot of them. Not all of them.”

    During that stretch, he met Amanda and his life changed in so many ways. Her strong faith deepened his faith and then came marriage and four children.

    “We’ve been on such a great journey together,” Justin said. “How our faith has grown together -- how we parent, how we love each other, how we try and serve through our church, through our community.”

    Troon will be Justin’s 10th event this season. He’s missed two cuts and had a pair of top 20s at the Northern Trust Open (T16) and Valspar Championship (T18). He’s felt fresher and more eager to play when he has teed it up, but there’s a long way to go. And if he doesn’t keep his card? He can still play selected events and there is his budding career as a broadcaster.

    “I’ve had that whole golf mortality thing,” he said. “What am I going to do? It’s not in my nature to just have nothing going on ... I feel like broadcasting might be the answer to those questions when it's time.”

    The Golf Channel reached out to Justin in 2014 to do a walkaround tour at Brookline for their Ryder Cup coverage. He said sure.

    “I hadn’t been there since ’99,” he said, “I went up and we walked around 15, 16, 17, then the locker room and I kind of told stories about what happened.”

    A few weeks later, they put him in studio with David Feherty, Lanny Wadkins, David Duval and Gary Williams for a show that was basically them watching the Ryder Cup.

    “Saturday morning we went on air at 3 a.m., so our first five hours nobody is watching which was great for me because I could get comfortable.”

    Producers Brandt Packer and Jack Graham left the door open for him to do more work and he met with NBC lead producer Tommy Roy at DFW airport last August. That meeting led to a 2016 schedule for Justin that included the Shell Houston Open (as a hole analyst) and the Barracuda Championship (in the booth as lead analyst).

    “The doors were kind of put in front of me and I kind of started walking through them and decided to see where it led,” he said. “And honestly, I think it’s kind of taken some pressure off this year, knowing this is my last exemption, knowing if I don’t play well, I can see there is something else out there where I can stay involved with the game and maybe educate some people into what’s going through the emotions, the psyche, of people trying to compete and win a golf tournament.”

    Justin has tried to absorb all he can. He said working with Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller brought his “game up a bit” and he has tried to spend a lot of time with Gary Koch.

    “I think (Gary’s) probably the best in the business at what he does and he’s got so much insight,” Justin said. “He’s such a professional and he works harder than anybody. … Rather than have my talking points and trying to get those out in the time I have, (I’m concentrating on) making it more conversational and reacting more. There’s a balance there that I’m starting to get the hang of. I feel like each time, each day almost, I get a little more comfortable.”

    The same goes for alter ego @jlmountainman.

    Justin has never been one for technology, but he’s working on it.

    “I don’t have an ATM card,” he said. “Never have. I’m old school. I like going to the bank and writing a check. Amanda had been encouraging me to get into 2016 and the 21st century.”

    In January, he snapped a photo and signed onto Twitter with the idea that he would just observe. Within three minutes, buddy Chesson Hadley had tweeted Can’t wait to read @jlmountainman’s first tweet.

    “I thought, oh boy, now the pressure’s on,” Justin said.

    Four months in, he’s got several thousand followers and the hang of hashtags -- #lovetohike #goingonabearhunt. “I think the big thing is I’m able to show my sense of humor a bit,” he said, “but also interact.”

    Whether it’s broadcasting, Twitter, Aspen culture, house renovation, middle school homework or parenting, Justin jumps right in and tackles the subject.

    “(Justin’s) always going to be a detail guy,” Frazar said. “He’s always going to obsess, but all the details have shifted from golf to Amanda, kids and the future.”

    Which brings us back to the bustling rental house. School’s out and the dogs jump up to greet the kids as they walk in the door.

    They grab snacks in the kitchen and talk about their days. A few minutes later, Luke is working on a school project, the girls are dealing with homework and Justin is laying out the plan for the girls to head off in one direction with Amanda on Saturday, while the boys go to Denver for Luke’s lacrosse game and to buy camping gear.

    Skylar isn’t sold on it. The girls’ trip sounds like more fun and the more Justin talks up boys’ weekend, the more he shakes his head.

    Justin looks up and grins. This is going to be a challenge. One that just solidifies what he and Amanda already know -- his heart is full and this is the happiest he’s ever been. #gokids #nevergoingback #blessed

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