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TEE TO GREEN: Views of ‘Paradise’ bring visions of golf shots in the year ahead

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With so much in life, and sports, dramatically changed over the course of the past year, some sense of normalcy for golf fans returned with the PGA Tour’s annual Hawaii doubleheader at the beginning of this month.

Kapalua and Waialae have been a staple of January for several years, and golf fans are always fired up to see the gorgeous ocean views displayed across our TV screens. It seems to give me hope that good golf days aren’t too far away.

Harris English continued his strong play of the past several months with a playoff victory in Kapalua. Normally only the previous years’ tournament winners qualified for the Tournament of Champions event, but due to the shakeup with the 2020 schedule, players who either won a tournament or made it into the Tour Championship were eligible this year. English didn’t win last year, but his consistent play allowed him to make the top 30, into the Tour Championship, and thus, get him into Kapalua. Needless to say, he made the most of his opportunity and with his win, has already locked up a Masters invitation and a return trip to Maui in 2022.

The Hawaii swing of the season then saw Kevin Na continue his career resurgence by winning the Sony Open in Hawaii by a stroke on Sunday. Na needed an up-and-down birdie at the last to secure his 5th career win, but his 4th in the past four seasons.

English’s victory held a special personal meaning to me, as I’ve known him since he was a teenager. If you’re looking for a good, young player to root for, let me suggest Harris English. He’s as humble an athlete as you’ll ever find, a true Southern gentleman that conducts his business and his life with a great deal of integrity.

When Harris and his family decided to send him to Baylor School in Chattanooga, I was an assistant professional at Black Creek Club, the school’s home course. Harris and his mother lived in a townhome just off the Club’s 4th hole, while his father remained back in South Georgia taking care of his business. Harris was a regular at the Club, particularly at the practice facilities day in and day out. He would come into the golf shop and hang out with us, and he and I played many rounds together late in the afternoons. This was before I became the father of three children, so I certainly had a little more free time to play those rounds.

A particular fond memory came in the summer of 2004. One of Harris’ former Baylor teammates, Vanderbilt freshman Luke List, was competing in the U.S. Amateur at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. As the match-play portion of the event progressed, we would refresh our computers often to keep track of Luke’s progress. When Luke made it all the way to the semifinal match, Harris’ dad told me and my boss that if Luke won and played in the championship match, that we were all getting on a plane and heading to New York.

Well, Luke did just that. I vividly remember driving Harris to his house to grab some clothes, and then the two of us driving to my house so I could do the same. My wife was out of town, and I called her to tell her I was going to New York, and that I’d be back the next night. You can imagine her reaction to that news, but again, this was before kids so I could (somewhat) get away with things like that. Harris and I arrived at the airport and we were off to New York.

We faced an early start the next morning as we headed over to Winged Foot to watch the 36-hole final, and hopefully cheer on Luke to victory. He played solidly the entire day, leading for a good portion of the match, but then his opponent, Ryan Moore, proceeded to win the final four holes and close out the match 2-up. It was a tough loss, but we were proud of Luke for his accomplishment and a young, 15-year-old Harris English got to take it all in as a spectator at one of the game’s great courses. Of course, Luke would go on to become a fixture on the PGA Tour, where he still has his card and plays to this day.

Fast forward to this past September, and the U.S. Open was held at the same Winged Foot. And who ends up in the second-to-last pairing of the day, right in contention to claim his first major championship? A now-seasoned veteran on the Tour, who was in the midst of a rejuvenation after a few years trying to find his game: 31-year-old Harris English.

I went through all the emotions as I watched Harris grind it out on that tough Sunday. His opening tee shot went into the left rough, and with the lack of fans due to COVID, the ball was never found. He double-bogeyed to drop well back, but continued to grind out pars and was still hanging around late into the round. He ultimately finished 4th, his best ever in a major, and buoyed by that performance, has been hot ever since and looks poised for his best season ever.

Suffice to say we are all looking for anything positive to keep us motivated. Hopefully you’ve been able to take advantage of the rare good weather day and get out on the course. Either way, spring is just around the corner and the golf season is rapidly approaching. If you’re a golfer, you likely played more golf in 2020 than ever before, as rounds played across the country were up an astonishing 12 percent, which equates to 50 million more rounds versus the previous year, according to the National Golf Foundation. Hopefully we continue that trend this year.

For us golfers, the familiarity of tuning into primetime coverage of those Hawaiian events to kick off the new year gave me a sense of optimism. And watching someone you saw literally grow up in front of you close it out for a victory, well, here’s to a great 2021.

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