Clay County high school golfer excels without formal training

mfields@herald-leader.comSeptember 28, 2013 

MANCHESTER — Lanky, laconic, laid-back Tyler "Chip" McDaniel is sitting at a table in front of the pro shop at Big Hickory Golf Course on a sunny autumn afternoon trying to answer a question that hangs in the air like a well-struck wedge shot:

How did it happen that a teenager who grew up in Clay County, where the only golf course is this picturesque, hilly, nine-hole layout built on a old strip-mine pit, and who has never had a golf lesson or a swing coach, could find himself at Trump National Golf Club, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., winning the Junior PGA Championship this summer?

"I don't know. A lot of people are kind of shocked when I tell them what course I grew up on," McDaniel said. "But I've seen a lot of good golfers come here and play poorly. It's in really good shape now. It's not a joke anymore."

Nobody's laughing, not after what McDaniel accomplished this summer. Six weeks before he won the Junior PGA title with a birdie on the final hole, McDaniel, 17, became the second-youngest winner of the Kentucky State Amateur by romping to victory by six shots at Bowling Green Country Club.

The 6-foot, 155-pound Clay County junior, who has committed to Kentucky, has plenty of game and plenty of passion for the game. That combination compensates for a lack of top-notch facilities close to home. (Big Hickory has no driving range and the course has no bunkers.)

"You don't need a whole lot to be successful if you've got the desire," said Todd McDaniel, Tyler's dad.

Todd McDaniel was talking not only about Tyler, but also about his older son Todd, who plays for UK.

The elder McDaniel, who didn't take up golf until he was 30, said his sons took to the game at an early age.

"I'd get up in the morning and say, 'Boys, what do you want to do?' I liked to hunt and fish, but they always said 'golf.' I've still got a bass boat in my garage that's covered up. It didn't get the wear I wanted it to get."

Tyler, four years younger than his brother, said their dad "always found time to bring us down here (to Big Hickory). He gave us the chance to play and learn."

It didn't take Tyler long to show promise. "I think I was in sixth grade the first time I shot under par in a match on this course," he said.

Tyler, following in his brother's footsteps, played in state-wide junior events on the Pepsi and Musselman-Dunne tours. He started going to national tournaments when he was 15. He said he won his first time out in an AJGA event in Ringgold, Ga.

Most golfers that age are already being tutored by some sort of swing guru. Not Tyler. After his father showed him the basics, stressing "tempo" first and foremost, he let his natural ability blossom.

"I think if I had a swing coach I'd have 1,000 thoughts in my mind, and that'd probably hurt me. College coaches like that I've never had a swing coach. You don't fix what's not broken."

McDaniel's easy, fluid swing generates lots of power. He hits his driver over 300 yards ... and counting. "I'm starting to hit it too far. It's a problem when I don't know how far it's going," he said.

Last year McDaniel could barely reach the green with his tee shot on Big Hickory's fourth hole, a 330-yard par 4 with a slight dogleg. This year he's had to gear down to a 3-wood.

Last week McDaniel had his best round ever at Big Hickory, a seven-birdie, one-bogey 30. "I was pretty mad I didn't shoot 29. I've never shot 29," he said.

McDaniel's "mad" is another man's "mildy miffed." He rarely shows emotion on the golf course. It's no surprise that his favorite pro is Jason Dufner, whose trademark is a laconic demeanor.

"I'm too laid back to feel pressure," McDaniel said. "It's still just a game, not a matter of life and death. I love playing it and I'd like to make a career out of it, but I know there's more to life than golf."

There's basketball, too.

McDaniel is a talented point guard for Clay County. He started as a freshman, and last year averaged 18.5 points in leading the Tigers to the Sweet Sixteen.

What's the bigger thrill: Playing golf at Trump National or playing hoops in Rupp Arena?

"Totally different experiences, but both are pretty awesome," McDaniel said. "Playing in Rupp, not a lot of people get to experience that, and I'll never forget it."

The chance to play basketball influenced McDaniel's decision to stay rooted in Clay County. Last month he visited the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head, S.C. It would have provided an opportunity to accelerate his progress in golf.

"I thought about it but decided not to,'" he said. "It just really wasn't for me."

So McDaniel is still at Clay County, splitting his time between books and golf. The Tigers play in the 10th Region tournament at Eagles Nest in Somerset on Monday. McDaniel hopes to qualify for the state tournament, which will be played Oct. 8-9 at Bowling Green Country Club.

McDaniel tied for third in the state as an eighth-grader, and tied for fifth the last two years. He was named Mr. Golf after his freshman year, and a plaque hangs in the Big Hickory pro shop noting the honor.

McDaniel's game probably isn't as sharp now as it was a couple months ago — "He usually peaks during the summer," his dad said — but his desire is still there.

"Winning the state championship is a goal, and I'd like to get it this year," McDaniel said.

If he does, it'd be another big victory for the kid who developed a big game at Big Hickory.

Mike Fields: (859) 231-3337. Twitter: @MikeFieldsNotes. Blog: fieldsnotes.bloginky.com.

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