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By Jim Wright
He grew up in a state that’s crazy for hoops. His dad has worked for the city’s NFL football team since the franchise’s first year. As a high schooler, his best sport was baseball. So how did Jeff Leonard end up at the University of Tampa as one of the best Division II golfers in NCAA history?
“I actually was looking for a college where I could play baseball,” Leonard says. “My brother, Scott, attended Tampa, so that’s how I knew about the school. But I got completely burned out on baseball after playing American Legion the summer before college and decided to try out for golf, thinking I would do something else for a semester then get back to baseball. I got totally hooked on golf, and I never played another day of baseball.”
Leonard’s initial experience with golf began in his hometown of Indianapolis. He played as a teenager with his father but didn’t take it seriously in high school since it was during baseball season. Leonard also played No. 1 singles for his high school’s tennis team, but despite his Hoosier upbringing, he played basketball only his freshman year.
Although inexperienced, Leonard got the chance to play college golf because of a “numbers” game.
“I wasn’t good enough to make the team as a freshman, but we only had 12 guys try out, so coach (Chuck Winship) let me stick around,” Leonard says. “I practiced intensely between my freshman and sophomore years. Competitive golf was new to me, but once I put my mind to something, I go all out.”
As a sophomore in 1986, Leonard’s greatly improved game earned him third-team All-America honors, setting the stage for the national spotlight that was about to shine on him and his team. At the 1987 Division II championships in Columbus, Georgia, a number of teams had a shot at the national title, but Leonard and his teammates dominated the field and gave the Spartans their first NCAA title in any sport and Leonard the individual championship.
As a senior, Leonard again won the individual title while leading his team to a second straight championship. No other Division II program ever has won both the individual and team titles at consecutive NCAA championships, and it has happened only four other times in NCAA men’s golf history.
Leonard remembers that first championship clearly. “We were so wrapped up in the team tournament that I wasn’t even aware of the individual lead until I got to the 15th hole and heard an official say I had an 11-shot lead,” Leonard says. “That freaked me out, and I promptly went double bogey, bogey on the next two holes.”
A star in the classroom as well, Leonard twice was named to the Academic All-America team.
“I was good at getting assignments done around the golf schedule and managed to stay focused with studies on our golf trips,” Leonard says. “If I showed my professors that I cared about the class work, they were very willing to work with me.”
Leonard played professionally for almost 10 years after graduation, including one year on the PGA tour in 1995, and his love for the sport continues today through his work with The First Tee of Tampa Bay, a part of the Tampa YMCA.
When he stopped playing professionally, Leonard turned his passions of faith, sports and kids into a job as the youth sports and teen director at the local Y. When the director position for The First Tee opened, he was the natural choice. Nearly 1,200 boys and girls participated in the Tampa program last year.
“We have a curriculum that focuses first on the life lessons the game can teach, and we have conversations with kids about integrity, honesty and perseverance,” Leonard says. “We work on life skills such as good decision-making and goal-setting, all built in and around the game of golf.”
When he gets back to Indianapolis, he and his dad still play some golf, but there also are conversations about the local professional football team. Chuck Leonard has operated the scoreboard for the Indianapolis Colts since they moved to the city from Baltimore in 1984.
Leonard and his wife, Sara, have two children, Emma, 7, and Will, 5.
He also has one last golf goal. “I still need to win the U.S. Open,” he says.
Jim Wright is director of statistics for the NCAA.