When a student athlete excels at playing a sport, he or she has usually been playing since they were in grade school, in some cases even younger. In the case of 1988 UT graduate and golfer Jeff Leonard, it was quite the opposite. He began playing golf competitively when he came to UT. “One of the keys to my success at UT was being relatively new to competitive golf,” Leonard said. “A lot of guys I played with had played junior golf and were kind of burned out on golf. It was new to me, and I couldn’t get enough of it.” By playing golf in Florida, Leonard believes that it gave him a competitive advantage. “I loved playing and practicing and being in Florida with the opportunity to play year-round, I was able to make up for the lack of experience as a junior golfer,” Leonard continued.
On top of being able to pick up golf quickly, Leonard is known for his work ethic, which he learned from his father. “My dad has been the most influential person in my life. The work ethic that he has displayed throughout his career has left an impression on me as far as what it takes to be the best you can be at something,” Leonard said. “I have always enjoyed practicing and working on my golf game and I think that came from watching my dad.”
Leonard’s ability to work on his game year-round translated into results on the course. He was a key component to the men’s golf team during his tenure at UT. Notably, the golf team won the NCAA Division II National Championship in back-to-back years in 1987 and 1988. Leonard reflects on those championship seasons. “My favorite memory is definitely winning the NCAA team championship in 1987. We had made such strides as a team that semester and going into the tournament, we thought we had a chance, but you don’t know for sure. We all played so well the last day of that tournament. It was incredibly rewarding. I was in the last group to finish, so getting to walk up the last fairway knowing we had accomplished what we set out to do was great. It was great winning again in ‘88 but we were expected to win, so it was a much different experience.”
After his collegiate golfing days, Leonard joined the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour in 1994-1995 and the Asian Tour in 1995-1996. In addition to the influence of his father during his life, he credits UT’s golf program and it’s size in assisting him to develop his skills for playing golf on a professional level. “Being at a smaller program allowed me to experience success and gain the confidence and self-belief necessary to play at the professional level,” Leonard said.
After he completed his professional golf career, Leonard focused his career to developing youth golfers. For ten years, he served as the Director of Programs for The First Tee of Tampa Bay which is a branch of the Tampa YMCA program. In fact, they provide interactive golf lesson to more than 40,000 children each year from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
He served as the director until 2014 where he shifted his focus to ministry work as the Director of Worship and Arts at St. James UMC. Even though his new position is not as golf-oriented, Leonard still implements what he learned from the sport into his new occupation. “Even though my day job is now in ministry, golf has greatly influenced how I go about my job and relate to others. Lessons learned on the golf course about focus and what I can control versus what I can’t control translate very well to any career,” Leonard said.
With that said, Leonard still finds time to personally develop young golfers. “I still find time to teach some golf in addition to my responsibilities at the church, so the lessons learned at UT and on the course will always stick with me.”