Home in the mountains
Justin Leonard's Aspen home is far from the golfing world ... and he's never been happier.
July 12, 2016
By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
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.”
Leonard smiles – it’s perpetual these days -- through a scruffy beard. His hair is longer and a tad more unruly than it was a year ago. His twitter handle -- @jlmountainman -- couldn’t be more perfect. Just check out the selfie he snapped with snow in his moustache and beard. #frostybeard
He’s been teased about golf taking him away from his job as TOUR ski concierge and his face has been juxtaposed online with doppelgangers Christian Bale and The Force Awakens’ aging Luke Skywalker. ‘’I appreciated the Christian Bale,” he grinned. “The Luke Skywalker? Not so much.”
He’s walked through locker rooms this season to a series of double-takes. Longtime friend Scott Verplank, who is a serious match for Leonard’s dry wit, shot him a simple text when he saw the new look – Is that you?
You think back 19 years to Royal Troon when the fresh-faced Texan captured the 1997 Open Championship and the hearts of the golf world with his tearful and heartfelt acceptance speech.
You flash to the tears on his cheeks as he was 4 down at the turn that Sunday at Brookline in ’99, the way he fought back and his iconic putt – and celebratory run -- at No. 17 that capped the U.S. Ryder Cup comeback for the ages later that afternoon. To the ’92 U.S. Amateur and the ’94 NCAA individual title at Texas – forerunners of an impressive professional career that began when he became just the fourth player at the time to play his way onto the TOUR and bypass Q-school.
You remember the grit, the determination, the focus that defined Leonard for all those years. That stare. The jaw set firm. That strong will that made the difference down the stretch.
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.”
Younger players may shake their heads at the Leonards' decision to trade Texas for Aspen, a tiny city where golf courses are closed all winter and non-stop flights to any place other than Denver and Houston (in season) are rare. But his friends know it was the right decision.
Leonard is happier than he’s ever been. Crisp mountain air, a full heart, outdoor adventures, a house filled with love, focus on the present and faith in the future. His cup as well as Amanda’s and those of their four children -- Reese (almost 13), Avery (11), Luke (10) and Skylar (6) -- runneth over.
Everything -- from the house to new friends, multiple pairs of skis and mountain bikes -- just feels right. They’ve all embraced the area’s relaxed feel and athletic outdoor lifestyle. The kids all play seasonal sports and everyone hikes and skis.
“We’ve been here almost a year now and we love it even more than we thought we would,” Amanda said. “We can’t even imagine living anywhere else. We don’t always know why, you just know it’s where you’re led and where you’re supposed to be.”
There’s no worrying about a place for Justin to practice during the winter, just plans for skiing with Amanda and the kids. He and his trainer have a workout plan and fill in the blanks with running, skiing, hiking and mountain biking.
“I have to do my work in the gym rather than the golf course,” he said. “I’m not going to forget how to play. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to get rusty, but it’s pretty great.”
Take this offseason. Leonard only hit one golf ball in Aspen from Oct. 30 until May. Really. One.
His clothing sponsor -- trendy KJUS -- had some East Coast visitors in to ski and fish when they decided to take a detour to the legendary Golf Shrine on Snowmass. The area has dozens of shrines -- the most famous to Jerry Garcia and his guitar -- tucked between runs on the mountains, and Justin posed next to photos of fellow Texans Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan.
"Buried in the snow there’s a little bag with a bottle of Scotch and some little Dixie cups and if you know where it is, you dig it up,” he said. "We did and all took a shot.”
There’s also an old leather carry bag nailed to the tree with two clubs and a bucket of range balls. Justin pulled a club and took that one swing.
Yes, he’s immersing himself in the Aspen culture. The shrines. Hiking the Highlands Bowl. Riding bikes to Woody Creek for lunch. Eating at the Grateful Deli. Shopping at Carl’s Pharmacy – there’s not a Walgreens or CVS in sight -- where the shingle in front advertises “Prescriptions and Sodas.”
So why Aspen? Why a tiny resort town where you get a view of Buttermilk run as you step off the plane? Where you downsize to a house less than half the size of the one you had in Dallas? Where you wake up to snow in May?
I visited the "Golf Shrine" at Snowmass today. I hit my first practice ball at home since Nov. 1! pic.twitter.com/bVxV2grZIm— Justin Leonard (@jlmountainman) February 27, 2016
Amanda and Justin hadn’t been in their new Dallas home very long when they started thinking about a change. Justin was working hard and playing well in places, but missing cuts. The 22-plus-tournaments-a-year grind was giving way to wanting to see the kids compete and be more present in their lives.
They thought about Aspen and Florida, where Amanda grew up. They even looked at a horse ranch in Weatherford, Texas. They brought travel and golf into the equation -- and then they took it out.
“We’ve made enough decisions based on my career whether it’s where we live, when we vacation … and everything goes back to whether I’m going to play that week,” Leonard said.
“Enough decisions -- too many decisions -- were based on golf. I said let’s take that out of the equation and look at where we want to raise our kids and where we would be happiest.”
He paused and smiled.
“We asked ourselves, getting on an airplane, where would we be most happy going home to?”
Amanda and Justin prayed about it -- separately and together. They talked late at night when everyone else was asleep and didn’t tell anyone else what they were thinking, except the kids.
During the process, there were some signs -- eight to be exact. Here are three that stick out:
• Justin was in the Phoenix airport talking to Amanda in Dallas in February 2015. He was on his iPad, she was on her laptop and they were looking at properties. “And this guy stands up across the way (wearing) this red shirt, it says ‘Aspen’ on it,” Justin said. “And I’m just like chills went up my back. I couldn’t speak.”
• A few days later, Amanda was having dinner with some friends in Dallas when one turned to her and said, “You’re going to be living in Colorado soon. The Lord just put that on my heart to tell you.” She had no idea Amanda and Justin were even thinking about a move.
• Amanda and her youngest daughter Avery were in Swoozie’s in Dallas when a coffee mug caught Amanda’s eye. When she looked closer, it said ‘Aspen’ on it. They had shared their thoughts with the kids by that point and Avery realized the meaning, too.
“There were a lot of conversations and a lot of unknowns,” Amanda said. “We just prayed and let the Lord lead us. If this is right, show us and it was so clear.”
Justin is at peace with the idea that this is likely his last exempt season on TOUR. He’s been out here for 22 years and 583 starts and it’s time to scale back. A dozen tournaments a year -- he knows all the courses like the back of his hand -- with some television work sprinkled in sounds almost as good as fresh snow on his favorite run.
‘’If I’m meant to continue to play, I’ll figure it out,” he said. “What I’ve been doing the last four or five years hasn’t been working. I was already planning to reduce my schedule back to 12-15 events. I was 25-30 a year for so long, then I think the last three years, I played 20-22 and I found it sometimes really hard to get excited to play and to go practice.
“I’d get to a tournament and by Wednesday or Thursday I’d be thinking 'what am I doing here?' I shouldn’t be playing this golf course. I don’t really want to be here. I’m not really excited. I’ve been doing this for so long, I’m not going to play any good playing like that anyways.”
He sought out Wisconsin native Steve Stricker to find how he prepared in a snowy climate and what it was like to play a reduced schedule.
“I got a lot of wisdom and insight from him,” Justin said. “So we thought: let’s go think outside the box. We’re never going to know until we come up here and try it.”
It wasn’t like Colorado was unfamiliar territory. Justin and Amanda had a place in Telluride years ago and after Amanda had visited Aspen for a friend’s birthday, she was eager to go back, which they did for their 10th anniversary. That led to an Aspen summer for the family. Then another summer.
“I think I was always a mountain-town guy, but I didn’t know it,” Justin said. “I think coming up here, I found a freedom I really didn’t have in Dallas and love of the outdoors I didn’t really know that I had. Just hiking and biking and I started running again up here.”
So they put the Dallas house on the market last August, and the Leonards hit the road. While Justin was playing the weekend at the Quicken Loans National, Amanda, Avery, Luke and Skylar left Texas and drove to Aspen. Reese stayed behind to drive up with Justin Monday morning.
He flew in about 9 p.m. Sunday night, slept, packed up and they took off at 5:30 a.m. Reese took care of the dogs and the guinea pigs in back, while Justin’s clubs rode shotgun along with the two Ryder Cup trophies, the Claret Jug and the U.S. Amateur trophy – all wrapped in towels.
“We were like a traveling zoo,” he said.
Sixteen hours later they were in Aspen.
“Every day he wakes up and when he goes on walks or runs, he pinches himself,” said former college roommate Harrison Frazar, a close friend since they were kids. “If after nine months, it still feels that way, you’re in the right place.”
Before he was a 'Mountain Man,' Leonard loved to take his family skiing
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