Van Cynical: College Golf's Elite Enjoy Time with Nicklaus at Muirfield

Tuesday June 9th, 2015
Jack Nicklaus during the 2015 Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.
Getty Images

One of the highlights every year at the Memorial Tournament comes Sunday morning when the five college golfers who are recipients of the Jack Nicklaus Award arrive for a press conference and get to interact and hang out with Jack Nicklaus. It’s obvious that Nicklaus enjoys it nearly as much as the collegians, who spend the rest of the day roaming Muirfield Village and watching golf.

Last week, a new wrinkle was added and the five college players (Division I, II and III, NAIA and NJCAA) competed at Scioto Country Club with the winner earning a spot in next year’s Memorial Tournament. Stanford’s Maverick McNealy shot 67 and won the invite. McNealy raved about the course’s conditions but was just as struck by the historic Nicklaus memorabilia and photos that adorn the walls of the clubhouse that Jack grew up in.

Anyway, the five players plus Nicklaus are on the stage at the same time for a media event, and I annually ask the players about the most memorable shot they played in the last year and the stories behind them. It’s a way to get all five players involved, plus they’ve usually got some good stories to tell.

“We can do all five of you guys but we can probably skip the Nicklaus kid,” I said. “I think we know his story.”

Here are the players and their memorable shots…

Maverick McNealy, Stanford, sophomore from Portola Valley, Calif.; six wins, won Pac-12 Conference Championship by ten shots, 69.05 scoring average, second lowest in NCAA history.

McNealy: “For me, it was a four footer on the 18th hole at the PAC 12 championships. It was a great round that I played but it capped off a comeback for our team. We had an eight shot deficit going into the final round. And I remember getting into the third green, I was off last and our team had already pulled ahead of Arizona State and we walked away with a big victory there by 14 shots. The special part about that is if my score had been the throw out, we still would have won by four. So to me that was capping off an amazing week, back to back conference championships for our team. I was proud of how all the guys played. The putt went in in the middle of the hole, I was very happy about it.”

Santiago Gomez, Nova Southeastern, junior from Armenia, Colomibi, ranked No. 1 in Division II, finished top-five in 11 of 12 events.

Gomez: “My most memorable shot was I putted a two footer for the national championship win. It was a par 5. I was 270 yards, I went for the green. We actually play a stroke- match play in Division II. I was one stroke up going to the last hole. The kid I was playing with laid up, I went for the green. I had about 12 yards to the pin and I chipped to about two feet. Then the other guy almost made it from 90 yards, he hit it to like two inches. So I knew I had to make my up and down, and I made that two footer.”

Sean Elliott, Dalton State, sophomore, three wins including NAIA national championship with score of 272 that broke 60-year old NAIA scoring record.

Elliott: “I would have to say our conference championship over at Montgomery Country Club. I had a 15 footer from just off the fringe to pretty much seal the deal for the team championship and to seal the deal individually. It was something special, and I rose to the occasion. The line was probably about two cups out. It was quite the putt.”

Anthony Maccaglia, Oglethorpe, senior from Tampa, Fla.; four-time Division III Ping All-American; Byron Nelson Award finalist.

Maccaglia: “Is it cool if I extend the 12 months back to 19 months? In 2013, I made it to the U.S. Amateur and on No. 16, the par 3 at Brookline, I got a hole in one in the championship. Apparently that was the first-ever recorded hole in one in USGA history at Brookline. It's pretty cool that I'm the only one to be able to say that. It was a 5 iron, it was a back right pin, I couldn't even see the bottom of the hole. So I hit a nice shot, started walking after it because I doubled the hole before that. There were 20 people around the hole.

“It landed a little right of the hole and kicked a little left. I though it could have a pretty good chance of getting close. My dad was on the bag for me and I looked down and heard a roar and then my dad went crazy.”

Kerry Sweeney, Eastern Florida State, freshman from Melbourne, Fla., won three tournaments in a row this spring, earned NJCAA Division I Phil Mickelson Outstanding Freshman Award.

Sweeney: “Mine was probably this Wednesday. It was at The Bear's Club with one of my teammates who was doing U.S. Open qualifying. We were on the seventh hole, a par 3, and Mr. Jordan (Michael Jordan) walks up right behind me. I'm like, oh, man, I'm hitting in front of a billionaire, which is pretty cool, and the greatest basketball player ever. And Dwight Freeney and some other guys were out there.

“When I was hitting that ball, I thought, if I put this on the green it's going to be a miracle. Thankfully I did.”

Jack Nicklaus, Ohio State, won a couple of majors. The Nicklaus kid wanted to share a story with the collegians so he jumped in, too.

Nicklaus: “Mine relates not to last year but back to when I was their age. I was playing the National Amateur, I was 19 years old, I was a sophomore at Ohio State University. And I was playing the finals of the U.S. Am, I was playing Charlie Coe, who was the defending champion. And we had played the 35 holes, we were all even, it came to the last hole at Broadmoor.

“We were right beside each other with our tee shots. Charlie hit an 8 iron a little strong over the back fringe. I hit a 9 iron about eight feet short of the hole. Charlie almost holed it.

“Anyway, I holed the eight footer to win. But what that did, is like you guys were talking about, that putt told me that I had the ability and the confidence to win a tournament and win something significant. And it was probably the most important shot that I ever hit in my life. You go back and look at something that gives you the confidence to propel your career and you use that to go from one level to the next level to the next level.”

The highlight of the press conference was probably Elliott’s answer when I asked about his girlfriend and if they had any memorable matches on the golf course. He is dating Julia McQuilken, who won the women’s NAIA individual title for Dalton State, then Elliott followed up a week later and won the men’s NAIA title for Dalton State.

“The first time we met, we played golf at Dalton Golf and Country Club,” Elliott said.

“I hit my tee shot out there, she sticks her tee in the ground and starts teeing off from the tips. I’m like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you back here? It’s 7,000 yards.’ We finish nine holes. I shoot two under par, she shoots one under. I was like, I don’t know if I can date this girl!”

The room broke up in laughter and McQuilken, who was present in the audience, had a priceless surprised expression on her face. She apparently hadn’t heard that story told quite that way before.

“It was something really special for her to win and then for me to win,” Elliott said. “I had some big shoes to fill.”

Enough of the heartwarming crap. Let’s get to the dog-eat-dog, horse-eats-horse Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Cynical, About Dustin Johnson’s caddie -- I’m not sure if Joe LaCava is an in-your-face guy but you wonder if it would be different for DJ if he’d stuck around. -- Kenny Kraut via Twitter

Joe’s longevity speaks for itself, so he’s obviously good at what he does, one of the best. If you get a chance to caddie for Tiger Woods, you take it but yes, I think Dustin would be doing better this year with a consummate pro like Joe back on the bag.

Vans, If a wayward Tiger drive lands in a passing boxcar at Chambers Bay, is that a stroke and distance penalty?—Mr. Fairway via Twitter

No, Lawn Boy, you gotta play it. The late comedian Marty Feldman addressed this possibility in a silly golf short about 45 years ago in which the highlight is his golf ball landing on a coal car on a moving train and him subsequently hitting the ball from a moving train going the other direction on an adjacent track. I’d like to see Tiger play this shot but kids, don’t try this at home. Stay away from those leftover blasting caps, too, dangnabbit.

Van Sick, How many years will we have to wait for NBC to stop pretending Tiger can win every week?—Brad Ford via Twitter

As many years as it takes for me to stop getting Tiger questions in the VCM (Van Cynical Mailbag). When I tweeted Tiger’s final-round Memorial score, a Tiger hater tweeted back, “Who cares about Tiger?” Well, the ratings, surveys and page-clicks indicate the answer is, Just about everyone. 10 or 12 more years, Fordham, and you’ll get used to it.

Vascillating Sickle, When is Tiger Woods going to get off his sorry ass and start playing the game of golf again?—Coaches Hot Seat via Twitter

I’m not sure that Tiger was ever sorry, Seat, so your initial description may not fit. It seems like Tiger is playing golf swing instead of golf. He needs to quit trying to get his “speed” back and focus on something golf related like, oh, I don’t know—tempo!

Vanity Sickle Fair, Do you think Jack was slightly insulted when Justin Rose said playing in the Memorial feels like “a real PGA Tour event”? Justin, that’s The House That Jack Built you’re talking about. I’m sure he thinks it has the feel of a major.—SoCal Golf Guru via email

Well, he probably thought it did until he ended up with David Lingmerth as his winner. Jack may be right, though, the little-known Lingmerth may be on his way to big things. The Memorial does have the feel of a major since you can’t buy daily tickets (only weekly passes), everything is dark green and he replicated the 12th and 16th holes from the Masters for his 12th and 16th holes. It’s Augusta North.

Hey, Van Slickle, Does the PGA Tour keep stats on worst rounds of the season? If so, where does Tiger's 85 at Jack's place slot?—Triple Bogey Man via email

The PGA Tour is not keen on providing negative statistics, TBM, so I perused the 2015 calendar-year tournament scores—thanks for that, by the way. Tiger’s 85 doesn’t crack the top five. We’ve got Ben Crenshaw’s 91 at the Masters, followed by these scores at Valero Texas Open: Sam Burns, 89; Ryan Polzin, 88; Johnson Wagner, 87; and D.A. Points, 86. Crenshaw (Masters second round) and Tiger were next at 85.

Sickle sell, Will The Shark (Greg Norman) be bearable on TV?—TexDanR via Twitter

You’re going to have to give him some time, Tex. Fox had to throw this whole USGA championship golf coverage thing together on the fly, so expect some serious growing pains. Plus, Norman and partner Joe Buck are at an even bigger disadvantage because they don’t have 10 or 12 weeks of regular PGA Tour event coverage they can hone their skills on. They’re thrown right into a trial-by-fire at the U.S. Open. It may take Fox and the Norman-Buck duo a couple of years to get the hang of it. I say Give Peace a Chance. Also, The Shark.

Van Cynical, Will Brandel Chamblee ever appear on Golf Channel again after saying Peter Kessler’s name several times on the air?—Greg Beaulieu via Twitter

That’s Dead Sea Scrolls stuff at Golf Channel, Bo, suitable for the ancients. According to my understanding of bad sci-fi channel horror flicks, though, if Brandel had said Peter Kessler’s name five times while looking into a mirror, Kessler would’ve materialized and taken vengeance with his supernatural powers.

Van the Man Cynical, Bethpage, Torrey and now Chambers Bay. What's the next completely public course likely to host a U.S. Open?—Chris Gordon via Twitter

It’s almost in the on-deck circle, Flash. Erin Hills, near Milwaukee, gets the 2017 Open. After that, I don’t see many other candidates. Streamsong has two worthy courses but the Open isn’t going to central Florida in June. Papago in Phoenix has a Bethpage Black feel to it but again, Phoenix in June isn’t going to happen.

Sick, What are your thoughts on hybrids?—A Perfect Sonnet via Twitter

Personally, I’d still rather have a good 5-wood but I haven’t found one lately, which is why I’ve got two hybrids in my bag. One replaces my dearly departed 3-iron, the other replaces the 5-wood. I’d love to be at an all-hybrid Demo Day, though, just to try them all out. A lotta guys I know swear by them.

Sickle Scythe, Will Tiger go back to Butch or Hank?—Ray Donovan via Twitter

No, never. Tiger is not big in the forgive or forget department. Hank wrote a tell-all book, he’s done. Butch has too many other clients to take Tiger back.

Vans, Who wins a major first, Dustin Johnson or Rickie Fowler?—Al Walker via Twitter

They both look ready to break out, Big Al, but I’ll go with Fowler, who’s got a better team around him that includes Butch Harmon.

Van Cyclical, Dark horses for Chambers Bay?—Sam via Twitter

Ryan Moore, who lives nearby and has been playing well lately. If it turns into a short-game contest on those crazy greens, Sam Handwich, it could get wild. Brendon Todd’s strength is around the greens. So is the force known as Ian Poulter. I also like Zach Johnson’s game just about anywhere. He’s won a Masters but nobody ever picks him to win anything else.

Sick Man, Tiger, one more major between now and 46? Can’t see four or five physically at this point. Or is he just done?—Todd Neumann via Twitter

The smart money would be on done, Alfred E. Golf is a game of adjustment and correction, though, and who’s to say he can’t flip the right switch one of these months. I can see him stealing a major the way Jack did at Augusta in ’86 but on his current course, that’s about it.

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