Call it an epiphany, or perhaps the onset of maturity. South Carolina men’s golf coach Bill McDonald saw that moment last fall as suggesting his most heralded player was transitioning from wunderkind to something special: a skilled, smart competitor.
McDonald was following freshman Matt NeSmith, ranked in the top two in the nation among junior players, during a round when the lanky North Augusta native approached him. “He said, ‘Coach, you’d be so proud of me on the last hole,’ ” McDonald said. “‘You know how you told me never to take two calculated risks per hole?’
“I’m thinking, ‘I said that?’ So Matt says, ‘I took one risk and it didn’t work out, and I was thinking about taking another. But I didn’t; I took my medicine and made bogey.’ ”
McDonald chuckled. “First of all, I don’t remember saying that,” he said. “But I thought, ‘Good for you for remembering that and applying it.’ Some kids, you tell them something, they look at you, nod their head … and don’t apply it.”
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Understand, McDonald never has questioned NeSmith’s talent. USC’s coach since 2007 oversaw the Bryan brothers (George IV and Wesley), Paul Woodbury, Patrick Rada — solid performers all — but hasn’t had a player of NeSmith’s stature since … well, ever.
That ability was evident in two recent outings when NeSmith tied for 10th (USF Invitational) and tied for third (Palmetto Intercollegiate, his team’s best score), earning back-to-back SEC Freshman of the Week awards. NeSmith called both showings a product of smart, if not superlative, play. “I’m in a better state of mind on the golf course” than during the fall semester, he said.
That said, freshmen stars in golf often can be like two-year-old thoroughbreds: wild, untamed, headstrong — but emotionally fragile when confronting NCAA competition. NeSmith? He’s been there and, it seems, moved on — on the golf course.
Off the course — well, there are still moments …
“I’ve gotten better at taking care of my stuff,” NeSmith said earnestly, “but we had a team picture, coat-and-tie deal, and I forgot my jacket.” Specifically, he had left it at last summer’s Northeastern Amateur … in Rhode Island.
McDonald, who NeSmith says was “pretty livid,” raced to his home to fetch a jacket for his player — who, by the way, had also forgotten his uniform shoes. In the photo, NeSmith stands in the back so his sneakers don’t show. There also was his first practice round of 2012, which he overslept. “He did some running for that,” McDonald said.
Through junior high, NeSmith’s profile among the talented S.C. junior ranks began equally immaturely.
“There was always a bunch of us — Blake Kennedy, Stephen Behr, Hayden Garrett, me and Cody (Proveaux) — all about the same age, and no one was a standout,” he said.
That changed in the ninth grade when Proveaux began winning everything, everywhere.
“He started getting a lot of media attention and picking his game up,” NeSmith said. “That made me think, ‘He’s one of the best in the country — and I can beat him.’ That got my fires going to see how good I could get.”
Proveaux, from Leesville and now a freshman at Clemson, was Rolex Junior Player of the Year in 2011 and ranked fourth in the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) rankings. NeSmith was No. 2 in 2011’s AJGA ranks and, a year later, won the Rolex Tournament of Champions.
Still summer golf buddies, the pair view each other as true rivals now.
“When we put on (USC and Clemson) gear, we want to beat, and our teams want to beat, each other,” NeSmith said. “But it’s a little different now because that’s the same in individual events, which is kind of weird.”
Proveaux echoes that.
“In terms of how our friendship drives us, it’s kind of supportive,” he told Palmetto Golfer magazine last year, “because we want each other to do well. But it’s also competitive because we want to win so we can rip on the other guy.”
So far, NeSmith is keeping up. His 73.29 average through seven tournaments ranks second for USC to Dykes Harbin, with a best round of 68. McDonald’s goal this spring is a return to the NCAA tournament, but with Harbin the lone senior, the Gamecocks’ future is also bright.
“I sense this group can get some good things done,” McDonald said. “We’re young on paper, but we have the bulk (of regulars) from last year who got to regionals, and last year’s three freshmen (Caleb Sturgeon, Shawn Kelly and Will Murphy) are all in the lineup.”
He was pleased when the Gamecocks were runners-up in the USF and Palmetto events … and disappointed.
“I’m waiting for (his team) to figure out how to handle adversity,” McDonald said, “knowing they have a chance to win the last day and not trying so hard. … If you’re playing well, you’d better take advantage of it.”
NeSmith buys into that – perhaps too much. McDonald says his player started slow (for him) because of a jam-packed summer that slid directly into last fall. He suggested, and NeSmith took, some extended down time over Christmas.
“It was difficult for me not to practice (every day), but this past winter break, I didn’t touch a club two days in a row,” he said. “It was kind of weird, but really good for me.”
NeSmith says he listened to music — as with most of the Gamecocks, he’s a rap fan (Drake, L’il Wayne) — played around with his father’s guitar collection and “did a lot of schoolwork — first semester (grades-wise) was a little dicey,” he said. He also worked out — “and came back with shin splints,” McDonald said, laughing.
Anything else? “I slept a lot, which is always fun,” NeSmith said.
No more sleeping through practice, though. Not lately, anyway.