Georgia freshman golfer David Mackey faced a momentous decision last November. A standout from Bogart, Ga., Mackey whittled down his college options to Georgia and Alabama. With similar facilities and comparable campus locations, indecision about becoming a Bulldog or part of the Crimson Tide lingered.
In the end, Georgia’s image as a PGA Tour pipeline convinced Mackey to sign with the Bulldogs.
“On the PGA Tour right now, Alabama has Justin Thomas and that’s it,” Mackey said. “That was definitely the tipping point. When (the Georgia coaches) get you in the office, they say, ‘If you want to be on the PGA Tour, come here and we’ll get you there.’”
Georgia maintains a clear presence on the tour with nine players competing regularly in 2015. Eight qualified for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in June 2014, one shy of the tournament record set by Wake Forest alumni in 1981. Ten months later, six Georgia golfers — Erik Compton, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Chris Kirk, Brendon Todd and Bubba Watson — qualified for the Masters Tournament.
For senior Lee McCoy, the image of these professionals gives a glimpse of what is soon to come. McCoy is fresh off a first-team All-American selection by Golfweek in 2014, and finished third in the Nike Invitational in October with an 11-under showing.
He displays the necessary ability to reach the professional level, but the string of Georgia products to hit the tour further boosts his confidence.
“I’m hoping to continue that trend,” McCoy said. “I’ve got friends out there and fellow Bulldogs on the tour. It’s nice to know that you’re in the right place.”
Georgia head coach Chris Haack came to Georgia in July 1996 and followed the blueprint of Oklahoma State, a team that had won seven national championships in the previous 20 years. His strategy was to fill rosters with players driven by competitiveness. He created a golf factory that spilled out a conference’s worth of talent.
“Haack created an atmosphere of trying to get groups of guys in the junior ranks that get along and compete at the highest level to come to Georgia,” said Kevin Kisner, a tour member who graduated from Georgia in 2006. “When those guys come to Georgia, they are all so competitive. That drives them to work on their games individually.”
Mackey said it’s important to be capable in several activities outside golf, the most prominent being ping pong. The team plays frequently in the clubhouse with games flavored by trash talk.
The thinking from Haack is a player’s fire, billowed by paddles and ping pong balls, will carry over to tee-off time.
Several pro golfers come around for events such as ping pong or driving competitions. Chris Kirk lives in Athens and swings by the course on occasion. Other players such as Russell Henley bond with the Bulldogs over dinner.
“I hear from [former players] all the time,” Haack said. “Seven of them were back the weekend of the Alabama game. We had a Lettermen’s Four-Ball where we brought all the former lettermen back. Seven of those guys came back. Bubba and Chris were both here and flew out the next day for the Presidents Cup.”
Haack and assistant coach Jim Douglas implement notes from the tour players’ stints at Georgia into their coaching. While most coaches hope their lessons can help players get better, Haack understands what they need to go pro.
“After being here for 20 years and watching all these guys progress, we’re able to tell these guys, ‘Here is where you are; here is where they were,’” Haack said. “We’re able to give them good, open and honest evaluations of what they’ve got to work on and, if they do have aspirations of going to the next level, what they need to improve.”
Even the tour members’ mistakes at Georgia are beneficial. Mackey mentioned a poor shot he had on the 16th hole of a qualifying round this year, which left him discouraged. Douglas told Mackey about a similar shot Kirk once had on the same hole. Kirk, according to Douglas, was despondent afterward and drove around the Route 10 Loop in Athens, wondering if he should give up golf.
“I was upset after [my shot],” Mackey said. “If Chris went through it, it really puts it in perspective.”
With the PGA Tour tree growing strong in Athens soil, the main objective for Georgia golfers is to keep it healthy. While it’s been four years since a Georgia golfer joined the PGA circuit, there’s little thought that Georgia’s window of opportunity has closed.
The lapse pushes the Bulldogs to improve their game and join what The Augusta Chronicle’s Scott Michaux called “the UGA Tour.”
McCoy is next in line. He’s played in the U.S. Open and the Travelers Championship at 21 years old. He also made the cut at the John Deere Classic, where his 2-over gave him the highest finish among amateurs.
Mackey may eventually follow suit. His potential as an 18-year-old who’s played in tournaments for the last 12 years is recognizable. While he still has plenty to accomplish in college, Mackey aims to add another link in the UGA chain when his leaves Georgia.
“That’s definitely all of our goals when we committed here,” Mackey said. “We want to be that next guy.”
Jordan D. Hill is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.