Nov. 13, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
The South Carolina pipeline to professional golf is well established, and the number of former Gamecocks successfully making the jump to pro tours continues to grow.
“What we’ve had success with here is a blend of developing the players so they can perform well while they’re here, and having an eye on the professional ranks to make them aware of what they need to do to compete at that level as well,” said South Carolina men’s golf coach Bill McDonald. “We’ve been fortunate to have some guys achieve their dreams, and we have some guys who are really close.”
Former Gamecocks Wesley Bryan (2008-12) and Kyle Thompson (1997-2001) are currently playing on the PGA Tour, while Mark Anderson (2004-08) also spent some time there recently. Will Starke (2012-16), Sean Kelly (2011-16), and Caleb Sturgeon (2011-15) are on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, while George Bryan IV (2006-10) and Mark Silvers III (2005-09) play on the PGA Latin America Tour, and Matt NeSmith (2012-16), Dykes Harbin (2009-13), Scott Feaster (1999-03) and Will Murphy (2011-15) are also currently playing on other pro tours.
“The on-course preparation with Coach McDonald and [former assistant] Coach [Alex] Hamilton was a big part of getting me prepared,” Kelly said. “I learned a lot about how to approach a practice round and figure out what spots you need to spend more time on. The time management we learned was great, not only for professional golf; it was great for life.”
“I loved my time at South Carolina,” said Thompson, who played under former head coach Puggy Blackmon. “More than anything, he really helped me a lot with the mental side of the game. You have to work hard and have a really good short game, and you have to learn how to travel better.
“I had full scholarship offers to Clemson and South Carolina. I grew up in Easley, S.C. I chose South Carolina, and I haven’t had one moment of regret about that choice.”
One of the many selling points of the golf program is the ability to improve a player’s skills so he can not only help the Gamecocks succeed, but also help the individual prepare for the next level.
“We’re recruiting at such a young age now, and a majority of the kids we recruit have their sights set on playing professionally,” McDonald said. “Just look at all of the talent that has gone through the Southeastern Conference the last few years. The level of play in our conference is some of the best amateur play in the world. They know that when they come here, they’re going to be tested at the highest level. All you have to do is walk down the range at the SEC Championships each year, and you see the best amateurs in the world. It’s incredible.”
“When Bill McDonald was recruiting me, he told me that they wanted to see guys go to the next level and succeed in professional golf,” Kelly said. “That’s one of the things that really drew me to the school. They made a commitment to prepare me for professional golf.”
I encourage any kid that goes to school to play a sport to get their degree. College is the best time of your life.
As their collegiate career progresses, McDonald is mindful in preparing them for what to expect next.
“Around their junior year I talk to them about what type of equipment they’re going to play with as a professional,” McDonald said. “I talk to them a lot about things they can do to tighten up their game not only at the college level, but for what they need on the professional level. The four year experience here is wonderful, but it flies by.
“In college golf, you’re trying to get them to play well all of the time because you need consistency. The reality in professional golf is sort of like batting .300 in baseball. You might play 25 events, but if you win three times, you’re a world-beater because of all the money that’s out there. So the mindset changes a little, and that’s something we talk about a little before they transition to professional golf.”
For McDonald, there is satisfaction in seeing his team perform at a high level, while also have the student-athletes earn their college degree, in addition to the pride that comes from seeing his student-athletes perform on professional tours.
“I remember having conversations with Wesley Bryan when he was here about parts of his game that needed to be worked on to make it to that level,” McDonald said. “He even talked about leaving school early. As good as he is, it’s not an overnight thing. It was four or five years before he had success professionally. I know the grind that it takes to make it professionally. There’s a lot of satisfaction. I know what that dream is like. We call it ‘the show.’ Being with Wesley at the PGA Championship, and he’s playing with Bubba Watson, it started me thinking about how just a few years ago I had this kid in a smelly van coming back from a tournament. There’s a lot of pride in it as a coach for sure, but more than anything there’s a respect you have for the achievement and for that dream.
“Sean Kelly was known more for his mustache when was playing here, but he is someone I’ve been so proud of. When he was here, he was a ‘par guy.’ He could shoot 72 on the hardest course in the world, and he could shoot 72 on the easiest course. He just made pars all day long. I kept telling him that when he turns pro, he’s going to have to make some birdies and turns the reins loose a little bit. He has really matured in that manner and is playing some high level golf.”
While some golfers may be ready from a physical standpoint to leave college early to play professionally, they can often benefit from a mental and maturity standpoint to finish their college eligibility.
“My mother would have absolutely killed me if I would have turned pro early,” Thompson laughed. “Going to school and not getting a degree was never an option for me. Unlike other sports where you can get a huge signing bonus when you turn pro, it’s not like that in golf. Going to South Carolina was fun, and you have to have that degree to fall back on. I encourage any kid that goes to school to play a sport to get their degree. College is the best time of your life. That’s four years of experience. I would never want to give up a year of that to go do what I’ve been doing for the last 15 or 16 years now.”
“If you’re going to leave early, you have to think about whether you’re going to be able to sign with a sponsor because it’s really expensive to play professionally,” McDonald said. “It’s a $10,000 or $12,000 commitment just to go to tour school when you factor in all the entry fees, travel and caddies. There are a lot of things to consider. I’ve always been a proponent of taking advantage of the opportunity to get your degree and pursue college golf at the highest level. The average age of a PGA Tour rookie is still in the late 20s. It takes four to six years for a lot of these guys to get to that level. That’s another great thing about golf; you’re seeing great play by guys in their 30s and 40s.”
And an increasing number of pro golfers have worn the Garnet and Black.
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