The only thing Leonard does immoderately, it seems, is play golf. He has been obsessed by the game since he was eight, when his parents first began taking him to Royal Oaks. Smith remembers a short, skinny kid who played with clubs that had belonged to his grandmother and had been cut down. That summer the Leonards drove to Destin, Fla., for a vacation. But while the other kids on the beach were digging moats with their buckets and shovels, Justin designed the world's toughest par-5. It had a lot of water on it.
The golf motif carried over to school. While his classmates drew pictures of farms, Leonard drew golf courses. He wrote essays on Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Finally, in junior high school, his English teacher had had enough. "No more golf," she said. "Choose another subject." So much for his interest in English. When he got sick and stayed home from school, he chipped golf balls indoors after his mother left the house. He would hit wedges from one section of the split-level home to another. "Up the stairs, around the dining room table and over the dog," he says.
Smith knew he had a prodigy on his hands when Leonard won the 1986 Oklahoma Junior Classic at the age of 13. Leonard marched through the Royal Oaks clubhouse carrying a trophy almost as big as he was. He scheduled a lesson with Smith for the next morning. "From that day he just wanted more and more and more," Smith says. "I was giving only five lessons a week, and two of them were to him. I was busier merchandising. But he brought me back to my mission fast. Because you don't often run into a kid like this. A blind man couldn't have screwed him up."
Because he was so small, Leonard was accustomed to being outdriven by 30 to 50 yards on every hole. So he learned how to control and maneuver the ball. Here's how he played par-5s: driver, three-wood, three-wood, one or two putts. "And he'd beat people's brains out," Smith says. "He didn't have to be told that he could play in the fairway and beat all those guys [who were hitting it] in the trees. And he's never really gotten away from that philosophy." (Most Tour pros have switched to metal woods, but Leonard still plays persimmon because he believes it is easier to control.)
If Leonard learned about accuracy from Smith, he learned about composure from his family. He had to be calm to put up with the antics of his relatives. His father was a particularly unnerving playing partner. Justin frequently joined Larry and his golfing buddies, a circle of local businessmen regarded somewhat warily by the Royal Oaks staff because of their boisterousness.
Justin would step up to the ball, and a barrage of tees and loose change would fly at him. As he took the club back, the barking would start. "Basically, they liked to torture me," Justin recalls. They nicknamed him Jasper because, they explained, they were trying to build his character. "It worked, but that wasn't our real objective at the time," Larry says. "We were trying to make him miss the shot."
The result was a player whose self-control set him apart from his peers. Leonard's high school friends remember a kid who had a unique agenda. His discipline made even his best friend, Chad Senn, who would become his teammate at Texas and is now an assistant pro at Royal Oaks, seem only casually committed. Everybody else would put in nine holes and retire to the pool for a hamburger. Leonard kept playing. At 7:30 on Saturday mornings, while his friends were in bed, he was on the tee. "He was focusing when the rest of us couldn't," says Senn.
His focus only intensified after he went to Texas. Despite the demands of traveling with the golf team, he laid out a schedule and stuck to it. He spent most Friday and Saturday nights of his senior year studying, racing through 32 hours of course requirements in his last two semesters. Even when he dated, golf wasn't far from his mind. For much of '94 he dated Jessica Wadkins, daughter of Lanny and a student at Wake Forest. They met when he played a practice round with her father at the 1993 Masters.
Upon Justin's graduation, Larry and Nancy agreed to finance their son's early career in professional golf. They set up a company, JL Enterprises, but they would make just one deposit. Playing on a sponsor's exemption in his third professional start, at the 1994 Anheuser-Busch Classic, Leonard finished third and pocketed $74,800. That was enough to earn him playing privileges on the PGA Tour for the rest of the year. He finished the season with $140,413, enough to earn him a full Tour exemption for 1995. Six months after they opened it, Larry and Nancy dissolved the company.
Since then there has been just one ripple in Leonard's young career, when he missed three cuts to start '95. But the control freak in him kicked in. "I just didn't allow myself to get depressed," Leonard says. He tied for fourth at Doral. He tied for fifth at Colonial. He tied for second at the Western. He tied for eighth at the PGA Championship. Then, needing a strong showing at the Texas Open to qualify for the Tour Championship, he finished second. A week later he flirted with the lead during the final round of the Tour's most lucrative event before finishing tied for seventh.