PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Prior to offering his assessment of the year that wasn’t, Lee McCoy adjusted his cap, sat back in his chair and unleashed a deep sigh.
McCoy was the darling of last year’s Valspar Championship, a fresh-faced amateur playing on his home course who stared down Jordan Spieth and didn’t blink. A fourth-place finish catapulted his name alongside guys like Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau in discussions of the next potential can’t-miss prospect, and it availed McCoy of a number of playing opportunities.
All of which makes his return to Innisbrook this year as the golfing equivalent of a nomad that much more difficult to stomach.
“I think I’m just as good a player, if not better,” McCoy said. “I’m just kind of back at the bottom of the totem pole.”
McCoy’s path since taming the Snake Pit last year is effectively broken up into three parts. In the immediate aftermath of his storybook finish – the best by an amateur at a non-opposite PGA Tour event since Justin Rose at the 1998 Open Championship – McCoy considered turning pro. But he opted to return to school to complete his senior season at the University of Georgia, where he helped his team win an SEC championship.
He made the jump to the professional ranks in the summer, but like Rose he experienced a rocky transition. With six sponsor invites still at his disposal, McCoy missed the cut in all six events.
“I just kind of had a really bad two-month stretch at the wrong time,” he said. “How many top 50-125 players out here could have a bad two-month stretch and nobody would say a word about it? That’s just it, I played bad for a couple months. It happens.”
Following a missed cut at the season-ending Wyndham Championship in August, McCoy went back to the drawing board and started to see his game progress. In his first start of the new season, he made his first cut as a professional and finished T-41 in Las Vegas.
Then the accident happened.
On Nov. 7, McCoy was en route to Plantation Preserve Golf Club in South Florida with practice on his mind. The second stage of Web.com Tour Q-School was only days away, and he recognized it as one of the most pivotal weeks of his young career.
Advance, as a player of his caliber was likely to do, and you’re assured of at least some status on the Web.com Tour for the coming year. Miss out and you’re left to wander the mini-tour and Monday qualifier circuit.
McCoy got in a minor car accident en route to the course that day, and his right hand jammed against the steering wheel. His wrist soon began to swell, and the diagnosis came a few hours later: a fracture in two parts, one that would require a cast for six weeks and eliminate any thoughts of playing second stage.
Suddenly, McCoy’s well-crafted transition to the PGA Tour was thrown out the window.
“Crazy things happen in life, you just wish the timing wasn’t so bad,” McCoy said. “It’d be one thing if I didn’t have anything going on and I was playing like garbage, but I was really playing well and had the biggest week of the year a day away. Of all days, really?”
“I think it was pretty devastating,” said McCoy’s college coach, Chris Haack. “He was going into second stage riding high, knowing that he’s playing well. And that just kind of derailed him. I think anytime those type of things happen, it can set you back mentally as much as physically.”
True to Haack’s words, McCoy’s biggest hurdle proved to be mental. The cast that kept his right hand in place didn’t allow him to properly grip an Xbox controller, much less a golf club, and he struggled simply to pass the days.
But with time eventually came some perspective. McCoy focused on feedback from his orthopedic surgeon, who told him one of his fractures nearly ruptured every tendon in his hand – an injury that would have effectively ended his golf career before it truly began.
“I keep saying that I’m the luckiest unlucky guy ever,” he said. “It could always be worse, I guess.”
McCoy started testing his wrist with shots from deep rough in early January, and now declares the injury “absolutely, unequivocally 100 percent.” But without a professional tour to call his own, the 23-year-old has spent the last two months shuttling from one Monday qualifier to the next, without much success.
“It’s hard to do anything when you don’t have status,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter how good you hit it on the range, or how good you play at home, what kind of numbers you shoot. If you don’t have anywhere to play, it’s tough.”
All of which brings him back to his hometown event, where he accepted another sponsor invite and will make his first competitive start since October. He’ll likely return to a nomadic existence after this week, hoping to cobble together a start here and a start there.
But McCoy knows better than most that sometimes it only takes one week to break through, and the confidence gleaned from last year’s memorable performance remains.
“You always wonder, at home when you’re practicing and stuff,” he said. “Man, am I good enough? Can I really do this for a living? I can shoot 66, 67 at home, but do I really have what it takes to get out there and contend?
“Even though it’s been a year now, there’s a lot of guys out here that go a lot longer than a year without getting in contention. It’s nice to know that I can do it, and I’d like to think that I’ll do it again in the future.”