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No longer in the shadows, McCoy adjusting to spotlight

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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.”