The golf ball arcs and lands with a plop in unexplored territory — a normally hard-to-find bunker on Woodcreek’s 14th hole.
Matt NeSmith grins and turns to teammate Kieron Fowler, the golfer whose shot was especially off-target.
“I’ve never seen anyone hit that bunker before,” NeSmith teases.
NeSmith tees it up and lands his ball a few feet away in the sand. He stares bewildered and chuckles at the irony.
“I just hit that same bunker,” he announces.
“Good,” assistant golf coach Alex Hamilton says. “That’s karma.”
NeSmith gets in his cart, still laughing, and turns on rap music as he maneuvers down the course. Despite shooting a round that includes more than a few bunker shots and a ball driven so deep into the woods that he and three teammates failed to locate it, NeSmith maintains his easy-going personality.
Though some of his shots have been atypical for a former Rolex player of the year — an award given to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson when they were teenagers — his calm on the course is not.
But it wasn’t always like that. He analyzed every drive, obsessed over every putt, trying to be perfect at a game that knows no such thing.
“If you take golf too seriously, it can paralyze you,” NeSmith said. “The mind gets so clustered, you really don’t know what to do, and you don’t know how to get out of it. It’s a brutal game.”
Serious questions about when to turn pro await, but NeSmith hasn’t given them much thought recently. He hasn’t been giving anything much thought, committed to thinking as little as possible for a change. He’s taken on the South Carolina golf team’s light-hearted personality in his sophomore season, and both could be looking at an impressive year because of that.
“As of right now, I don’t feel like I want to leave,” NeSmith said. “I enjoy college, and I want to stay as long as I can.”
When most kids were watching cartoons, Matt NeSmith was watching the Golf Channel.
Growing up in North Augusta, 15 to 20 minutes from Augusta National, Matt was born into a golf-loving family. Matt’s dad, Darren NeSmith, used to caddie at Augusta National.
Watching his cousin play competitive golf, Matt begged his way onto the course at 5. He only played two rounds before Darren entered him in his first competition.
Passion turned into obsession. Matt was involved in other sports, but he’d end up dropping all of them for golf-related reasons. His junior high basketball team went undefeated and won a championship, but it wasn’t enough to keep Matt interested because he thought it was taking too much time away from the course.
“He thought baseball was affecting his golf swing,” Darren said.
It helped that Matt developed physically fast for his age. USC assistant coach Michael Burcin, now the head coach at Wisconsin, saw Matt play as an eighth grader and called Gamecocks head coach Bill McDonald. A future top recruit lived two hours away from campus, and USC was the first school to watch him play.
“He said, ‘There’s an eighth grader here that looks like a senior in high school, and you’re not going to believe this kid,’ ” McDonald said. “He was a little bit of a freak in the sense that he had physically developed a lot faster than most of the kids he was playing against.”
Achieving success in middle and high school was less pressure for Matt than sustaining that success in his freshman season at USC. Michael Jordan once said golf “smacks you in the face every time you think you have accomplished something.” Though Matt was ranked first in the Golfweek junior rankings, better competition at the collegiate level and greater academic obligations coupled with the adjustment of being a freshman away from home for the first time caused him to struggle in the fall.
McDonald remembers Matt worrying that he didn’t have six hours to practice every afternoon. But throughout his first semester, he learned how to practice more efficiently and manage his time better. When he came back from a winter break in North Augusta, he seemed refreshed and finished the season strong, winning SEC Freshman of the Year and garnering PING All-America honorable mention honors. Darren could see Matt still felt like he underachieved, but McDonald saw Matt make the mental strides every freshman needs to make.
“Junior golf came pretty easy for him — it was like watching a man amongst boys,” McDonald said. “Every player deals with a certain amount of adversity. Matt won so much right before he came to school that his idea of a successful tournament was winning, and his idea of failure was not winning when he could’ve played really well. The nature of golf is that you just don’t win all of the time.”
THE YEAR AHEAD
On every putt, NeSmith is repeating “nine” in his head over and over to keep him from thinking about it too much. On Woodcreek’s third hole, his putt is perfect, but rolls off edge of the hole.
“I can’t complain,” he says as he walks back to his cart after settling for a par. “I hit it great, but I just didn’t hit it hard enough.”
The attitude is progress for a perfectionist on the course. But as he puts his putter back into his bag, he shows there’s still work to be done on his quest to not over-think.
“Gosh,” he mutters. “What a frustrating game.”
The roller coaster of golf is complicated even more in a team format. It’s hard enough for one person to play consistently well, but it’s another thing to have five teammates all play well at the same time. What feels different to McDonald this year is the kind of talent the team can lean on.
“This is as much talent as we’ve ever had,” he said.
Junior captain Caleb Sturgeon, sophomore Will Starke and NeSmith are the established starters. Sean Kelly would have been the fourth starter until an injury sidelined him until the spring. The Gamecocks were in position to win the SEC Championship last year and got a top-20 preseason ranking for this season. But they think they’re capable of more.
This fall, NeSmith finished in a tie for fourth at the Rees Jones Invitational and finished runner-up to teammate Caleb Sturgeon in the Badger Invitational in Wisconsin. NeSmith has four top-five finishes in his career and has placed in the top 10 in six of the past seven regular-season tournaments.
“There is a feeling that the sky is the limit for us,” Starke said. “We talked about it at the beginning of the year — not to put a limit on what we can do. Last year, we had some specific goals, and when we talked about it, we thought we might be limiting ourselves by having those ceilings. Our goal this year is to win the next event and to win everyday.”
The team is trying to stay out of its own way. From McDonald down, it keeps things light and no one is off limits to some good-natured teasing. NeSmith pulled a prank on Hamilton by hiding the chair from his office in a nearby storage closet, but he said he would never do something like that to McDonald because he’s scared of reprisal.
“I like a good prank,” McDonald said. “He needs to be careful because if he comes my way with some of that, the war is on.”
The comfort between the two help when discussing the future. When NeSmith played at the NCAA Championship, he had a handful of agents following him around the course. McDonald never wanted NeSmith’s potential as a PGA Tour player to be the elephant in the room, so he met with the NeSmiths to discuss benchmarks Matt should hit as an amateur and college player before making the jump to maximize his value, like becoming a first- or second-team All-American and making a run at the Walker Cup. But McDonald never would want to hold NeSmith back.
Just now beginning to enjoy himself on the course without becoming crippled by his thoughts, NeSmith is making the serious stuff wait.
“If it’s time to go, it’s time to go,” NeSmith said. “It’s not very high on my priority list right now.”