What’s it take to win the Masters? A major champ explains

What's it like to compete in a major championship like the Masters? Justin Leonard shares his keys for players looking to win this weekend

Justin Leonard's a 1-time major champ, so he says these are the keys to competing at The Masters.

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Welcome to Shaving Strokes, a GOLF.com series in which we’re sharing improvements, learnings and takeaways from amateur golfers just like you — including some of the speed bumps and challenges they faced along the way.

Obviously, winning a major title like The Masters is no easy task.

While it takes putting together four days of (arguably) the best golf a player has ever played, it takes so much more than just the physical side of things. It requires grit, discipline, the right game plan and the ability to handle the pressure that comes with the biggest tournament in the sport.

But to really get an understanding of what competing at the Masters is like — and what it takes to actually win a major championship — I spoke with someone who’s done it before: Justin Leonard.

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As one of the fresh, young, budding stars in golf during the ’90s, Leonard’s career was punctuated when he won the 1997 Open Championship at Royal Troon Golf Club. The victory was his lone major championship, but he did have three top-10 performances in others, including a T7 at The Masters in ’97.

Bottom line: Leonard knows what it takes to master major tournaments, and he’s got some thoughts on how to best navigate the emotions throughout the week.

Leonard and I connected earlier this week to chat about his relationship with GOLFFOREVER, but, naturally, I had to pick his brain about Augusta with the tournament now underway. Take a look below to see what he had to share with me about the hurdles a player must overcome to even sniff a chance at winning a green jacket.

Justin Leonard’s essentials to win a major

As an average golfer and a fan of the game, it can be difficult to truly understand how grueling it can be to compete on the highest level. Sure, we all might have an idea about the pressure of playing in a major like the Masters, but does it really come close to the actual thing?

This was one of the most fascinating things I needed to know when speaking with Leonard. Do players really feel all the hype and majesty surrounding the tournament, or is it all for show?

“You just try and get your game to peak on those four days,” he says.

So what’s that exactly mean? I pushed a little harder to see if Leonard could dive deeper into the nitty gritty.

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“Oh, I think the pressure is self-induced,” Leonard says. “To reduce that as much as possible, you just put in the time and the work. And, as a player, you’re trying to be fresh enough (because you know it’s going to be, and can be, a long week), and still stay sharp and ready to play. So it’s just trying to find that balance.

“Obviously, Tiger [Woods] did it better than anyone. But the guys that tend to contend a lot in the majors, they’ve been able to figure that part out.”

So are there are few specific traits that make a Master champ? Leonard described three things that every player must do in order to even compete for a green jacket this week at Augusta.

“You have to putt well,” he says. “You really have to control the golf ball and control your emotions in the moment, if I’m going to just simplify it that much. But control of the golf doesn’t mean you don’t miss shots.

“Look, everybody’s going to miss shots — especially at Augusta. But if you’re missing them in the right places, where you can get the ball up-and-down and those kind of things, it can make for a much less stressful week. And usually the less stress you have physically with your game, the less you’re going to have mentally as well.”

This was a good segway into Leonard’s organization skills and next-level preparation. The former Open Championship winner is known for building a go-to routine for himself, which helps him eliminate chaos — a word he thinks is crucial to manage in order to compete in a major.

“Look, I think a little O.C.D. is good,” he quips. “That doesn’t mean you can’t deal with a little bit of chaos. You’re going to have to at some point. But the less chaos you can create and have to deal with, the smoother the week seems to go for sure.”

Seems like a good strategy, no? It’s a good reminder for amateurs during a round as well — prepare, avoid unforced mistakes and do your best to handle chaos that inevitably pops up.

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Lastly, I had to know what Leonard’s “Welcome to Augusta” moment was. Without much hesitation, he took me back to his first time playing in the Masters — which involved surreal moments during practice rounds.

“My first year playing in ’93, I played as an amateur, so going out and playing a practice round with guys like Davis Love III, Tom Kite and Vinny Giles was pretty surreal,” he recounts. “If I remember, on Wednesday I went out and played with Ben Crenshaw. So just playing the practice rounds, it’s amazing.

“I remember being nervous on Monday or Tuesday, certainly those first couple of times. And I think that’s why it’s so hard to perform at Augusta as a first-time player, because everybody feels like they know the golf course, especially as a golfer, since you grew up watching The Masters. So, yeah, that first year in ’93, I walked around with my eyes wide open and my jaw dropped at pretty much everything I saw and did that whole week.”

While Leonard provided a recipe for players to compete at Augusta this week, he knows damn well that all of this is much easier said than done.

“[The whole experience] is a little intimidating, to be honest,” he says. “For so many players, it’s kind of a lifelong dream to play in the Masters. And then all of a sudden you realize that dream, so it’s tougher than they might even imagine.”

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Nick Dimengo

Golf.com Editor