Top image: Mark Leon (L) and JC Deacon (R)
Editor’s Note: As part of our 20th Anniversary celebrations, we looked back at some of the top junior and collegiate golfers that were featured in Fairways Magazine and asked Where are they now? This profile by John Berkovich is the first in a series.
Growing up in the north end of Brampton, Ontario and playing golf at the old Woodlands Golf Club with his two younger brothers – Michael and Matthew, a fine amateur in his own right who eventually turned to music before returning to golf on the teaching side – and a sister, Mark Leon never thought he had a future in the sport when he signed up for the junior golf camp run by Wally Adair.
“Playing every day at Woodlands and working with Wally is why I got to where I did in golf,” said Leon. “Mark Evershed was at Woodlands and Dave Morland would practice there. I remember Moe Norman doing a demo there. You saw the intensity in these guys and I learned so much from them all. Wally was an unbelievable coach. He started a junior team and we traveled around, playing whatever junior tournaments we could get into even down into the United States. My game was getting better and better and when I finished second at the Ontario Bantam, Wally told me some college recruiters likely noticed.” His words were prophetic.
Earning a scholarship to Penn State University for 2001, Leon finished sixth at the 2004 NCAA Championship, made it to the quarterfinals of the 2005 U.S. Amateur, and, as a member of Canada’s national team, was medalist at the Canadian Amateur in 2006. That earned him a second consecutive trip to the match play portion of the U.S. Amateur.
Turning pro in 2007 and playing the various mini-tours and Canadian Tour Monday qualifiers before joining the Canadian Tour (now PGA Tour Canada) full-time, Leon spent three full seasons on the circuit from 2008 through 2010 where he enjoyed moderate success. He speaks fondly of driving across the country with close friend and now-boss – J.C. Deacon – bunking with friends and fellow players when the tour hit their hometown, and experiencing the ups and downs of being a touring pro.
“It was so unique and an amazing experience playing professional golf,” said Leon, who worked as a substitute teacher in the off-season. “I was a middle-of-the-pack player who played well enough to keep my card but then 2010 happened. I lost my card and my wife and I had a young daughter (Cameron). Reality hit me really fast – much earlier than I expected.”
Injury prone and at a crossroads, Leon took one last shot at the first stage 2010 PGA Tour qualifying tournament in Auburn, Alabama, and opened with his worst round of the year to take himself out of the tournament. However, serendipity as he calls it, entered the scene during breakfast with his college golf coach from Penn State University, where he learned the assistant coaching job was opening up for the 2011-12 season. Throwing his hat in the ring, Leon, after a stint as an education support worker, eventually moved to Vero Beach, Florida with his American born wife Jaimie who worked in a law firm while he took on the role of stay-at-home dad.
“There were a lot of great candidates so I didn’t think I was going to get the job,” said Leon. “It dragged on for a couple of months and but then I got the call that I got the job.”
Under Leon’s and Head Coach Greg Nye’s tutelage, the Nittany Lions advanced to the NCAA Tournament four seasons in a row. Leon stayed until 2017 when J.C. Deacon, who had moved from assistant coach at UNLV to head coach at Florida for 2014-15, offered Leon the assistant role – one which he eagerly accepted.
Asked what it’s like now reporting to his good friend, Leon says it’s a trusted partnership but Deacon definitely has the final say on everything and delegates many tasks to Leon.
Keeping things organized on and off the road, ensuring the players eat right, attend class and keep the grades up, helping manage their games, and teaching when to gamble on a shot and when to play more conservatively are all part of the role. Leon loves coaching and watching the players develop their game. He’s almost awestruck at times at the talent he sees but with that comes the job of managing expectations of the players, all of whom want to be the next superstar right out of the professional gate.
“The reality is that most won’t get to the PGA Tour – especially right out of college – and we help them understand that,” said Leon. “When you’re in junior or college golf everyone cares about you, and you are part of a team. But when you’re a pro, you are on your own and can go a month without getting paid – and that gets really demoralizing. Part of what I do is preparing them for that.
Four years into the role, Leon is amazed and humbled that “Two guys from Toronto” are charged with running a golf program drenched with success that includes not only legendary coach Buddy Alexander who led the Gators to two NCAA titles, but Billy Horschel, Andy Bean, Mark Calcavecchia, Gary Koch, Chris DiMarco, and many more.
And with that history comes the pressure. “You can’t have a bad team when you are part of Gator-Nation,” he says. “People’s expectations are always high around here no matter the sport and when you think of who has come through the golf program – well, that just adds to it.”
The 2017-18 campaign saw the Gators capture three titles, five top-5 and eight top-10 finishes along with the NCAA Regional.
Having been assistant at both Penn State and Florida, Leon, now 39 and happily married with two children, wants to take the next step. “It’s definitely something I think about and want to do,” he says, when asked about a head coach position. “I’ve been an assistant coach for ten years and when the time is right, and I don’t know when or where that will be, I’d like to be a head coach somewhere.” However, he is in no hurry nor does he have a timeline. “I’m not one of those who plans every detail of my future. I go along day-to-day trying to get better at what I do and when the time is right, it will happen.”
Whenever that day does come, one can be sure that Mark Leon will regale his charges with stories of his touring days and the life lessons he’s learned along the way.