McCoy eyes NCAA glory after returning to school

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A strange thing happened after Lee McCoy’s star-making performance on the PGA Tour. He didn’t turn pro … and he didn’t neglect his Georgia teammates … and he didn’t become complacent, even with graduation and pro life only two months away. It was, in a word, refreshing.

In a college landscape rife with one-and-done talents who choose personal ambition over collective achievement, McCoy has rallied for one final championship push.

After tying for fourth at last month’s Valspar Championship and outshining Jordan Spieth in their Sunday pairing, McCoy returned to Athens early the next morning, after a 7 1/2-hour drive, to play in the Bulldogs’ home tournament. Since then, he has won twice, including the SEC Championship on Sunday, and finished in the top 10 in another event. 

Maybe that doesn’t surprise you – after all, if McCoy could beat all but three Tour players on a difficult course like Innisbrook, then surely he should play better than kids his own age. But it’s not that simple.

Following the Tampa event, McCoy said he listened to people around him telling him to turn pro, to take the money, to capitalize on his newfound celebrity and status. (It was the best finish by an amateur in a non-opposite-field event since 1998.) Sure, he briefly considered taking the jump – “It was a lot closer than most people think,” Georgia coach Chris Haack said – but ultimately McCoy decided against it, because he returned for his senior season to win a NCAA title, and he wasn’t about to bail on his teammates with only a month left in the season.

“I can play professional golf for the rest of my life,” he said recently, “so I figured I might as well take advantage of that little time left and try and win a national championship.”

Returning to school presented a unique set of challenges, however: McCoy faced even more pressure and attention every time he played. Any downturn in performance would make his Tour finish seem less impressive. And how about motivation? How does a 22-year-old shine on the biggest Tour in the world, against the best player, and then return to the same apartment, to the same classes for his housing major and to the same courses that, needless to say, aren’t up to Tour standards?

“I’m just playing the win-or-loss game at this point,” he said. “Eighth or ninth place, it doesn’t really do much for me.

“The only goal individually is to try and win, and that’s a lot different than playing on Tour, obviously. Finishing fourth in a Tour event is more exhilarating than any win I’ve had in college. It takes another level of golf to be in contention out there than it does out here.”

It also takes another level of discipline and maturity, which is what McCoy has kept reminding himself. During the recent 3M Augusta Invitational, he was in the mix for medalist honors and needed to go eagle-birdie on the short par 5 and reachable par-4 finishing holes. Instead, he went bogey-par, after his second shot on 17 left an impossible flop shot to a tucked pin. He wound up four shots back.

“I get more flustered out here in an intimate setting on this type of a layout than I do with 15,000 people, and that’s probably going to be a good thing,” he said. “It could have something to do with those expectations of trying to win and feeling like I should be winning most of the weeks, but I was much more composed in Tampa and in the other Tour events that I’ve played than I have in college golf.

“I think I’m a bit mentally stronger on Tour than I am out here, and I think that’ll help going forward.”

But McCoy has already been sharper this postseason. Closing in on the school record for career victories – a remarkable achievement, considering the level of talent that has rolled through Athens in recent years – McCoy shot 3-under 207 in 30-mph winds at Sea Island to win the SEC title by two shots. It was his seventh career victory, tying him with Chris Kirk and moving him within one of Russell Henley.

But clinging to the lead late Sunday, McCoy wasn’t fretting about the record or his place in Bulldogs lore. “One of the things that has impressed me the most,” Haack said, “was that he was very concerned about where the team stood, and it was more about the team than him. He would have played safe if we needed him to play safe.”

It wasn’t necessary. McCoy birdied the final hole and helped lead Georgia to its first conference title since 2010, and the eighth overall under Haack.

The focus now shifts to regionals and the NCAA Championship, where the Bulldogs lost in the semifinals a year ago. McCoy likely can’t play the win-or-loss game there, not with so much at stake. And that’s OK.

Said Haack: “He wants to go win a ring with his team.”