Justin Leonard

Justin Leonard Gets Uncomfortable

The major champ explains how breaking old routines
can lead to new success

Editor’s Note: Senior Editor Tom Coyne recently sat down with 1997 Open Championship winner and Ryder Cup legend Justin Leonard to get his thoughts on how to avoid traps when setting goals, stepping out of your comfort zone, and the value of staying accountable through community engagement. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tom Coyne: Justin, thanks so much for taking the time to join us. We’re here at Golf Forever, which ties into something we’re doing at TGJ: This year, we’re trying to inspire our members to play better golf, together. It’s called The Index Experiment. People are setting goals: Do you want to drop your handicap by five strokes? Do you want to get to scratch? Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to play more golf? That’s what I wanted to talk to you about—your experiences in terms of setting goals, getting after it, achieving that goal, then setting new ones. How did that work on your journey to become a major champion? 

Justin Leonard: To start at the end first, I think goal setting is important. I also think it’s easy, in golf, to get very result-oriented with goal setting. Look, when you put a scorecard in your pocket, the result is right there. But the scorecard doesn’t always tell the entire story. I think it’s the same with very result-oriented goals. 

As a college player, I wanted to be an All-American, I wanted to make the Walker Cup team, NCAAs and conference championships and all those things. But there were also process goals that were a little harder to quantify. Those are the ones that really drove me to spend more time in certain areas of my game, or improve my wedge play at certain distances or find ways to be better prepared and more rested.

I think goal setting is important, but it’s easy to fall into a result trap. You have to keep some of the processes involved. From a physical standpoint, we could all get in better shape. We could all eat better. We could all get better sleep. I think a lot of times, those things freak people out because it means they have to change their routine. 

Justin Leonard
Justin Leonard during the final round of the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine. Photo: Craig Jones/Getty Images

Something my wife says to me and to our kids all the time is that life begins outside your comfort zone. If you find yourself uncomfortable, you’re taking a new path. That’s how you grow as a person, whether it’s physically, mentally or spiritually. As a family, we’re on this beautiful journey together where it’s—I’m obviously at a different stage than our four kids. My wife and I are at very similar stages, and we hold each other accountable. 

Maybe accountability comes from walking with a friend. Maybe you decide to walk on the days that you play golf. Maybe it’s a 30-minute walk in the morning or the afternoon. Maybe it’s changing some sleep patterns so that you feel good getting up at 5:30 to get in the gym, or maybe it’s meditation. 

It’s funny, every time my wife says, “Well, let’s try to add this into our routine.” It’s like, “We don’t have enough time for that.” Our day is crammed full already. But there are things you can do, like making a commitment to going to sleep early so you can get up in the morning before the emails and the text messages start rolling in. You can just have that time to focus on whatever it is you’re wanting to focus on. 

I think, from a purely physical standpoint, I love doing cardio, and so I do cardio almost every day. I mix in with Golf Forever and using the swing trainer, I use it to warm up before rounds, before pro-ams—competition days. I use it in the gym or at home or my hotel room. There are so many ways to improve. If you can’t figure out a way to improve, you’re not looking very deeply, because there are so many different ways to get better, whether it’s golf, life, relationships, whatever. 

Has anybody ever said that their short game was too good, and they didn’t need to spend more time on it? 

Justin Leonard

TC: You’re right. What are you doing for your cardio? Are you a Peloton guy? 

JL: I do some Peloton, I do some Orangetheory. I did my first Orangetheory in a couple of weeks yesterday. I’m completely shot. 

TC: They kill you? 

JL: My lower body, I must have done—I don’t know, probably near 200 squats and lunges. Some weight-bearing, some not. But I love getting on a treadmill for 15 minutes, and the back and forth, the intervals, and going all out, and then reeling it back in. It’s been really fun. The first class I did was a few months ago and I was torn up for like five days. Same thing. I haven’t done lunges or squats like that in years. 

TC: Lunges kill me. 

JL: I love it. It’s a little different every day. They keep mixing it up, so I do that a couple of days a week. I do Peloton a couple days a week. I’ll get on an elliptical here and there. It’s funny, the Christmas holiday, I was on the Peloton every day for 14 straight days, and literally, I was getting sore from it. I was like, “Okay. I overdid it in one repetitive exercise.” 

I think the goal for me and what I think most people should do, mix it up. I love taking our dogs for an hour-long walk, or at least the one that can walk for an hour. 

TC: I was going to say, your dogs might walk. [laughs]. 

JL: Some days, that’s it, and some stretching and some core work. I think it’s just important to mix it up in variation. 

TC: If you’re ever looking for a Peloton group to run with, hashtag Broken Tee Society. That, for me, has been interesting. We got the Peloton and I’ve loved it. What I love the most about it is there is a bit of a community aspect. I don’t feel completely alone in my basement, even though I am alone doing it. There’s someone there in front of me, or there’s someone from the Broken Tee Society, etc.

But you’re talking about your wife giving you suggestions, doing things together. That’s one of the things about The Index Experiment: We’re trying to make it something of a community. What’s the importance of having someone to go on this journey with, and to do these things with? 

JL: It’s hard to go out and do it completely on your own, because there’s a sense of accountability that I feel people need in order to make change. Some people don’t need it, but I think the vast majority do. When you feel like you’re on a journey together with other people, I think it makes the journey more—tolerable is the wrong word, but you look forward to it. You understand there are people going through the same things. Community is important no matter what we do. 

TC: Now, when you’re talking about getting out of your comfort zone, are there moments that come to mind in your life that have been the most important? Whether it was moving, I know you’ve made a big move geographically with your family. There was moving, getting into broadcasting. You’ve done things that maybe weren’t the easiest choices. What were the most significant moves that you made out of your comfort zone that had the biggest rewards? 

JL: Oh, moving to Colorado was one of those. I’m born and raised in Dallas and lived there until 2015. We decided to move and we chose Colorado because we wanted to get off the grid a little bit and get out of our comfort zone, if you will. That was a change. I was also, a year after we moved, going away from playing and moving into television. 

It’s hard to go out and do it completely on your own, because there’s a sense of accountability that I feel people need in order to make change.

Justin Leonard

Look, I think if you’re not transitioning in some way or another, or improving, you’re not just standing still, you’re actually falling behind. I think that’s just the way life works. Last summer, we moved to Florida. It was obviously not ideal with one kid in high school, a 7th grader, and then our daughter going off to college. Knowing that she wasn’t going to have that home to come back to her friends, we were going to be somewhere else, our other kids needing to make new friends…but our kids love it now. I would say they approached it with cautious enthusiasm. That’s been another transition getting used to that. 

My wife is returning home because she grew up in South Florida. For me, it’s my first time living in Florida, and I love it. The winter’s been great, the weather, travel is so much easier than trying to fly out of a little mountain airport. I’m playing again, so that’s obviously a big part of why we moved. It’s been fantastic. 

I think transitioning is just part of life. Now we’ve got one that’s done with college, our other daughter who’s graduating in May from high school, she’s off to college. Our family dynamic is transitioning, going from two girls and two boys, now it’ll just be the two boys that are living in the house beginning in September. You’ve got to always be transitioning or adapting because life is always changing. 

TC: It sure is. Life in Florida’s treating you well? Where are you in Florida? 

JL: It is. We’re just north of Jupiter, in a town called Tequesta. We love it. We’re very close to the water. It’s got a very nice community feel. We’ve been in a couple of different rentals because our house isn’t quite ready yet, but we’ve been in the same neighborhood. Neighbors have been phenomenal. It’s very family-oriented.

TC: Where are you playing? 

JL: I play at Tequesta Country Club and The Bear’s Club. Two great places. 

TC: How’s the game and what are your goals in playing? 

JL: It’s been a lot of fun. The game feels very good. I think I don’t have a lot of result goals. Obviously, I want to win, and I feel like I should win. You could say that’s a goal. I’d like to think that it’s just going to happen, but part of it, for me, is relearning some things. If anything, I over-prepared for the last tournament that I played to where, starting in October, I might’ve taken four or five days off total for four months. If anything, I got there and I was tired. I knew my game was ready, but there’s that fine balance of being rested and ready. 

This week, I haven’t touched a club in five days, and it’s felt great, but I’m excited to get out and get back to work. The work is always happening, whether it’s on the course in the gym, looking back and analyzing some of the things that I’d like to do differently from last week when I played, all those things. Everything is a process. It’s one that I embrace and I love. 

I think I’m also able to apply some of the things I learned from commentating, watching the best players play at the highest level. There are things that I learned that I can try to apply to my own game, or give some of that information to my 16-year-old son who started playing a couple of years ago and has really gotten into the game in a big way. 

TC: He’s gotten into it? That’s cool. 

JL: He is, yes. 

TC: He didn’t start when he was 5? 

JL: No, no. 

TC: That’s good. 

JL: He had to choose it. He did, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago. Now, looking back, he says, “I wish I played early.” I say, “Well, you had to make that choice, not me.” 

TC: He is not going to burn out at 17. 

JL: It’s not too late and he is not going to burn out at 17, I guarantee that. 

TC: That’s exciting. Our members are hoping that they’re going to have breakthroughs in their golf games. There are going to be moments where they’d say, “Oh, I’m doing something fitness-wise, or score-wise, or handicap-wise, that I’m in a place that I wasn’t before.” Are there moments in your career where you recall those breakthrough moments? Where you say, “As a golfer, I’m in a different place?”

JL: Although you can’t see it right when it happens, you can look back and go, “Wait, that was an Aha! moment”—where the lightbulb goes on a little bit. I’ve had those through my career. I think every golfer has, at some point. If you haven’t, then maybe start playing tennis, or pickleball or something. Because those moments, you look forward to ’em, and you don’t always see ’em coming. You certainly see them in hindsight which is fun to look back on.

Although you can’t see it right when it happens, you can look back and go, “Wait, that was an Aha! moment”—where the lightbulb goes on a little bit. I’ve had those through my career. I think every golfer has, at some point.

Justin Leonard

TC: Absolutely. Finally, anything for, say, our members who are a 15 [index] trying to get to a 10, or someone trying to break 80 for the first time. We’ve all set different goals in this, like I’m trying to get back to scratch after a while away from it. Things that you would say, “All right, work on this.” It’s hard to play golf coach for someone that you’ve never seen, but anything that can yield some results? 

JL: Has anybody ever said that their short game was too good, and they didn’t need to spend more time on it? 

TC: Not to my knowledge. 

JL: I’ve never heard those words. Look, on the days when everything’s clicking, the game feels easy, but on the days when it doesn’t, how do you turn in a score that you’re proud of? I look back on the rounds where I turned a 75 into a 70 with greater fondness than any 65 that I’ve shot that felt easy, because I knew there were multiple things that had to happen. 

Justin Leonard
Grinding out a 70 with his B- or C-game brings Leonard more satisfaction than an easy 65. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

First, I had to forgive myself a little bit for having an off day. Second, I had to find ways to recover from mistakes, whether physical or mental. And last, just having the grit to stick it out and do those things. When you know, “I’m playing next week, I can pack it in.” Packing it in is not in my vocabulary. I think everybody should take it out of theirs. 

I think there’s always something to fight for and learn on every day, and so why not try and give everything you can each and every day? 

Header photo: Harry How/Getty Images