No longer in the shadows, McCoy adjusting to spotlight

By Ryan LavnerMarch 26, 2015, 4:37 pm

Not even Lee McCoy has fully grasped his newfound status in college and amateur golf. At the Walker Cup practice session last December, the Georgia junior spent the better part of three days in a daze, eyes wide, mouth open, like he’d just scored a date with Kate Upton.

Held before the winter solstice at Frederica Golf Club on Georgia's St. Simons Island, the 16-man session is essentially the first tryout. It’s “America’s Got Talent,” only with 90 holes, pleated khakis and evening pingpong. The participants rise before dawn and play until dark, their 36-hole days broken up only by a boxed lunch at the turn.

“The best three days I’ve ever spent on a golf course,” McCoy said.

Before heading home, he shook captain Spider Miller’s hand and told him, “Whether the committee picks me for the team or not, this is a week I’ll never forget.”

And he wasn’t brown-nosing.

“I was just mesmerized,” he says now. “I’ve never been in such a small environment where everybody is a stud, everybody is a star. I’m going from being a big fish in a big pond, to a small fish in a small pond. That’s a great place to be.”

Ready or not, McCoy better get used to that rarefied company.

After all, he is No. 6 in Golfstat’s rankings, and the third-highest ranked American amateur in the world. He has a 69.6 scoring average. He has five top-5s in seven starts. He has a pair of wins this season, including last week at Reynolds Plantation.

Yet that boondoggle in December imbued a sense of belonging that can’t be felt on some stat sheet. Looking back, his invitation was merely the latest in a series of personal breakthroughs that have positioned McCoy as one of the U.S. team’s best prospects.

“That practice session was huge,” Georgia coach Chris Haack says, “because it was a wake-up call, like, these guys know who I am now. Lee wants it. He lives, breathes and sleeps golf. Really, it’s all he’s ever known.”

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LET'S FACE IT: Lee McCoy was going to Georgia. His dad went there. His grandfather lived there, in a house on the outskirts of campus, a place McCoy now calls home during the school year.

The story goes that Lee’s parents were watching TV one day when a nascent Golf Channel popped up on the screen. This was 1995, and Lee was 16 months old, but when his parents continued to channel-surf he freaked out. Bawled. Threw a tantrum. His parents put the golf back on, and the hissy fit stopped.

His parents soon took the hint and bought Lee a set of plastic clubs. He took his first lesson at age 3. For the next dozen years, he worked with Tampa-area PGA professional Paul Sylvester, who taught McCoy the basics, how to chip and putt.

“He had such a good touch for a young lad,” says Sylvester, 56, now the director of instruction at Billy Casper Golf in Dunedin. “He hit a lot of shots that would surprise an adult.”

A year after winning the 6-and-under age division at the U.S. Kids Golf Championship, which brought together juniors from 29 states and six countries, McCoy attended his first UGA summer golf camp. He was 7 when he first met Haack, the super-recruiter whose alumni have performed better on the PGA Tour than any other school over the past two years. His track record speaks for itself, and so it’s revealing when he says, “I could tell early on that Lee was going to be a nice little player.”

Over time McCoy got bigger and stronger – he’s still generously listed at 135 pounds – and racked up several local titles in Pinellas County (Fla.). Wins have been an important part of his progression, and his haul was so impressive, Sylvester said, “I told Terry (Lee’s father) that he’s going to have to create a special room in the house, just to put all his trophies.”

After moving to Georgia for high school, McCoy held the state’s No. 1 ranking, and the first offer he received was from Haack. Upon arriving in Athens, McCoy was nicknamed “Sherm,” because of his uncanny resemblance to the infamous “American Pie” character. 

The early part of his college career followed a familiar trajectory – from little-known starter to SEC All-Freshman to Honorable Mention All-American. (Last season he deserved, at worst, a third-team nomination, after a sophomore campaign that included a win and five top 5s while playing for a top-10 program. A 55th-place finish at NCAAs seemed to doom his candidacy.) 

“I was still under the radar,” he shrugged. “I was just in the shadows.”

Before embarking on a nonstop summer schedule, McCoy played a casual round with James Mason, a former Champions Tour regular who has become a mentor of sorts to McCoy.

“You’ve got to learn how to win,” Mason told him. “You can kick my butt, but there’s no substitute for winning.”

And so, last summer, McCoy challenged at the Northeast Amateur and top-tenned at the Southern and Canadian Ams before sharing medalist honors at U.S. Amateur qualifying.

Which counts as a ... half-win?

“The half that gets you nothing,” McCoy said, smiling, “besides a nice medal that sits on my dresser.”

And, at long last, a bit of recognition.

IT'S ALL HAPPENING SO FAST now, the wins and the Player of the Year watch lists and the invitations to ultra-exclusive practice sessions.

This all began with a series of well-timed breakthroughs:

1.) At this time last year, McCoy was slapping it around the range at Reynolds Plantation. He’d played a draw for 16 years, a byproduct of his work years ago with Sylvester, who trained him to have a right-to-left ball flight to maximize distance. But the morning of that first round of the Linger Longer Invitational, McCoy couldn’t get the ball to turn over. It just started straight and faded a little right. He took it to the course, finished third that week, and you know what? He realized that he visualized a fade so much better than a draw.

“It was liberating,” he said.

Last week he returned to the Linger Longer, exactly one year after first discovering his go-to shot. This time, he won by two.

2.) At last year’s U.S. Amateur, McCoy had a spectacularly awful warmup. Cold shanks. Chunks. Skinny slices.

“You’d have thought I was a 15-handicapper,” he said.

With his first-round tee time at Atlanta Athletic Club only 10 minutes away, his caddie for the week suggested that they try one final swing thought before they left the range. The tip: to feel as though McCoy was dragging the club back in his takeaway, not picking it up and throwing it over his shoulder.

It worked. McCoy led the 312-man U.S. Amateur after the first day of qualifying. Shared top honors after the second round.

“Huge,” he said, “because I realized that I don’t have to be Iron Byron to win a golf tournament. Up until then I didn’t know that.”

That point was reinforced a month later, at a college event in Tennessee. McCoy enjoyed the best ball-striking week of his life, missing only three greens in 54 holes, but he “putted like a blind dog.” Even the occasional 3-footer didn’t scare the hole.

And he still won.

“I didn’t have my best stuff and still got it done,” he said. “That spoke so much to me, that I don’t have to be 100 percent to win a golf tournament.”

3.) After missing two events last fall because of a back injury, McCoy played in the Collegiate Showcase at Riviera, where a spot in the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open was up for grabs. The 18-hole qualifier proved a bust, but afterward McCoy met up with a few Callaway equipment reps on the putting green.

McCoy tinkered with different lengths and grips and putter heads, and one of the reps suggested that he try putting cross-handed for the first time. McCoy hadn’t changed much since he began working with Sylvester all those years ago, but the left-hand-low approach fixed his major flaws – it squared his shoulders, kept his left arm in the proper spot and solidified his impact position. Since the switch, he has only two three-putts in his last four tournaments.

“It killed, like, six birds with one stone,” he said.

4.) Last month, at the Puerto Rico Classic, he blew a gasket and, then, the tournament. He made a poor swing on No. 13 when he was ticked off and it cost him three shots, just like that. He lost by two.

McCoy has always been a momentum player – capable of rattling off five birdies in a row or skidding out of control – and both Haack and assistant coach Jim Douglas have worked diligently over the past few years to smooth out McCoy’s “emotional roller coaster,” to keep him from beating himself.

“He wants to win so bad that sometimes he’s his own worst enemy,” Haack says. “He gets in his own way, gets antsy and ahead of himself. It’s probably one of those things where, deep down, he’s trying to be one of the big players and get recognized.

“But he’s at a position now that he’s learning how to play with a lot of expectations, and he’s learning how to play knowing that he’s one of the guys who can win every single week.”

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THESE NEXT FEW MONTHS could help shape McCoy’s immediate future.

He is a talented player, a proven college winner, but so are many others. As well as he has played over the past year, not even a spot on the 10-man U.S. Walker Cup team – with two of the spots controversially reserved for the 25-and-older mid-amateurs – is guaranteed. The competition is fierce.

Miller could compliment every inmate at Leavenworth, but the U.S. captain seemed particularly effusive in his praise of McCoy. Six times during a recent interview, he ended a thought with, “Lee McCoy is just a really great guy.”

Unfortunately, the USGA selection process is as transparent as a CIA press briefing. College kids spend thousands to fly all over the country and showcase themselves, but rarely, if ever, do they know where they stand. With such a résumé-builder at stake, the next few months can be unnerving.

Which is why – as mentor James Mason preaches – it all comes back to wins.

McCoy used to be satisfied with top 10s. Tried to collect them like sports cards. “But now,” he says, “if I don’t win I’ve lost.”

Wins lead to acclaim.

Acclaim leads to a higher status.

And a higher status leads to a better opportunity (equipment, sponsors, invites, etc.) once the pro game calls.

“We’re playing for money right now,” he said. “We don’t get it right after the tournament, but it’s coming. And winning speaks more than runner-up finishes. It just does.”

A 21-year-old housing major, McCoy said recently that “golf is life for me; it’s all I can do.” That remark prompted a few laughs, but there’s some truth to it, as well.

Golf has been all he’s known since he was 16 months old with his plastic clubs, since he was a runt at Haack’s Georgia camp, since he was on the practice green with Sylvester.

“If it doesn’t work out,” McCoy said, pausing, “well, I’m not quite sure.”

“I don’t think Lee has a plan B,” Haack says. “He wants to make it in golf as a living. And that’s OK. I like guys like that. I like guys who feel like it’s their destiny.”

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After Further Review: Tiger's return comes at perfect time

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 2:19 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the current state of golf as Tiger Woods returns to competition ...

Less than four days before Tiger Woods returns to official competitive golf for the first time in a year, Jon Rahm, the new second-ranked player in the world, won on the PGA Tour and Rory McIlroy made an impressive 2018 debut on the European Tour (T-3).

Not since Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus crossed paths at the 1960 U.S. Open has there been so many superstars all poised for big seasons, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson having already won this year and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas both coming off stellar seasons.

It’s a good time for golf. - Rex Hoggard

On Tommy Fleetwood's continued success ...

There have been scores of talented European players whose skills didn’t translate to the PGA Tour … and maybe, in a few years, Tommy Fleetwood will prove to be no different.

He sure looks like the real deal, though.  

His title defense in Abu Dhabi – on the strength of a back-nine 30 in windy conditions – was his third title in the past 12 months and 11th top-10 overall. A few of those have come in majors and World Golf Championship events, too, which led the reigning Race to Dubai champion to accept PGA Tour membership for this season.

Beginning at Riviera, he plans to play exclusively in the States through May, then reassess for the rest of the year. Hope he sticks, because he’s a fun personality with tons of game. - Ryan Lavner

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Rahm passes Spieth to become world No. 2

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:25 am

With his win Sunday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jon Rahm picked up his second PGA Tour victory and moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.

He picked up one more No. 2, too.

The 23-year-old Spaniard passed Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Dustin Johnson.

In 19 months, since June 2016, Rahm has rocketed from No. 776 in the world to No. 2, thanks in part to his low divisor, his number of events played.

Asked after his playoff victory over Andrew Landry to discuss his rapid ascent up the world rankings, Rahm was almost at a loss.

“It's hard to believe to be honest, passing Jordan Spieth,” he said. “That's a three-time major champion. I only have two wins. He's got 10-plus, right? It's again – I've said it many times – I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now.”

Rahm may only have two PGA Tour titles, but this is his fourth worldwide win in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. He also took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship on his way to claiming the European Tour’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Award.

Dating back to the start of last season on the PGA Tour, Rahm has racked up 12 top-10s, three runner-ups, and two wins.

He will head to Torrey Pines next week ready to defend for the first time.

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Brady compares self to Woods after winning AFC title

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 1:05 am

Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are two of the all-time greats in their respective sports ... a fact that is not lost on the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Fresh off leading the New England Patriots to a AFC Championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady was asked about winning the game despite a cut on his throwing hand - which made national news heading into the matchup.

His response invoked the name of a certain 14-time major winner, something that would be tough to pull off, if not for the fact that he is, you know, Tom Brady.

“I think it's kind of arrogant to say it bothered me when we had a pretty good game, so I wouldn't say that," the 40-year-old told reporters after the game. "It's like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game’ and he won the tournament."

Tiger Woods winning with his "C game" may be a distant memory for golf fans, but no matter what game he brings, his next chance to win comes next week at Torrey Pines during his official comeback to the PGA Tour.

Brady has a shot at his sixth Super Bowl title in two weeks. The Patriots would probably benefit from him bringing a little better than his "C game" as well.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

Jon Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means: This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Rahm missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18 of the day, his birdie bid found the cup. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest: A two-time winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day: Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day: "One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry