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Camden golf team back on solid turf

Posted: April 6, 2017 1:28 p.m.
Updated: April 7, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

WILLS KELLY WATCHES his drive sail down the 10th fairway during Camden’s Tuesday home match at the Camden Country Club. The eighth-grader plays at number one for the Bulldogs.

Matt McCarley has experienced the highs, the lows and the in-betweens of the Camden High golf program.

As a player under former head coach Guy Eckenroth, McCarley was part of a Bulldog program which was among the best in the state in any division. By the time he had his CHS diploma in hand, McCarley was off to the University of South Carolina on a golf scholarship and would go on to become a two-time Gamecock captain.

From afar, as a collegiate player and then as a golf professional, McCarley watched the Bulldog program continue to thrive during Eckenroth’s watch.

When McCarley returned to his hometown as the head pro at the Camden Country Club in 2008, he was already in his sixth season as head golf coach at Camden High School. In his 14 seasons, he led the Bulldogs to several appearances in the AAA state tournament which, at the time, was the norm. Then came a dry spell for CHS as the program, at one point, had dwindled to just four players in a town which has enjoyed a long and vibrant golf history.

Among the first things which McCarley noticed when accepting the CCC job was a lack of young boys and girls who were playing golf or, taking the sport seriously. In 2009, McCarley kick-started the junior golf program at the club. Slowly but surely, the numbers grew. At first, the Bulldog golf program was unable to reap the rewards of McCarley’s labors in teaching the game he grew up playing since players are not allowed to play for their high school teams reached the seventh grade.

“When I first got here to the club,” McCarley said, “I started working hard and put a lot of time into our junior golf program. Those young kids, who were in the first, second or third grade back then, are finally getting old enough to play on (the CHS) team.

“The junior golf program is finally starting to pay off, as far as our golf team is concerned. I still have bunch of kids in my junior golf program now, so the team is healthy going forward.”

After having battled the numbers game and watching the state tournament from the sidelines for the past four years, Camden has slowly but surely climbed its way back into the AAA state golf consciousness and into the top 10 rankings. The Dogs sport an 11-4 record after splitting Tuesday’s match with A.C. Flora, the state’s top-ranked 4A team, and neighboring rival Lugoff-Elgin.

“We’re off to the best start we’ve had in, probably, 11 or 12 years,” McCarley said. “And, the future looks good for our team.”

After a time which Camden had to include the score of all its golfers and not have a high score to drop from the final total due to a lack of players, these are heady times, again, for the Bulldogs. Years of McCarley having to scour the bushes to find young men who had some experience on the links to come out for the join the team have led to a 2017 season in which he has nine varsity golfers with nine up and coming players champing at the bit on the junior varsity team coached by former CCC assistant professional, Jeff Neal.

“Things are coming along well. We’re definitely headed in the right direction with our golf team,” McCarley said as to the current state of the Camden golf program.

Playing at the top of the ladder for the Dogs is Wills Kelly, an eighth-grader who has seen his stock rise in the South Carolina Junior Golf Association ranks. “Wills has separated himself (at number one) and has a chance to be a good player. He just has to buy into playing 12 months out of the year.”

Kelly leads a youth brigade which includes sophomore Patrick Lindsay, who plays in the number two slot, freshmen David Bishop and Tripp Sanders along with Evan Younghans, another eighth-grader. Together, they bring a smile to their coach’s face as he thinks about this season and, beyond.

“My returning guys are playing well and I should have them for another three or four years,” said McCarley, who also is head coach of the CHS girls’ golf team which plays in the fall.

Youth, however, can sometimes run into difficulties on and off the course when it comes to competing against older, more experienced golfers. That, McCarley said, is where a strong senior class comes in.

“I have received great senior leadership from Tariq Johnson (who is in the third spot in the order), John Cantey, Henry Kerfoot and Hunter Sanders. They are a great group of guys and I’m going to hate to lose them after this year,” he said.

Together, McCarley feels this group is capable of getting Camden back into the AAA state tournament in May. In order to punch their ticket to a trip to the Grand Strand for the state event, Camden must first being among the top eight qualifiers at the AAA Upper State Tournament which will be played over the Chester Golf Club. As luck would have it, Chester is part of Region 4-AAA, which includes the Bulldogs who have already played a round over the challenging but fair layout.

“This year, we finally have a chance and enough players to make it which, I think, is realistic for us, for a change,” McCarley said of his team’s goal of playing in the state tournament. 

McCarley said his team does not have a true calling card, per se. The Dogs, he said, have a mix of players who can strike the ball off the tee while having other players who have a good touch on and outside the greens. “Overall,” he said, “like with most young kids, we’re not consistent enough around the greens and that’s where the game is played from; from about 50 yards in.

“We’re good in spurts but in order to start shooting better scores, we’re going to have to get a lot more consistent from 50 yards in.”

Another thing which McCarley said his players need to do in order to take their respective games and the team to the next level is to play and practice the sport throughout the calendar year and not just pick up the clubs when the high school season draws near.

“I still have to get kids to buy into playing year ‘round golf. If you aren’t playing golf year ‘round, you can only be so good,” he said. “I have the talent (on his squad), the key now is getting them to buying into playing 12 months out of the year and not just five to six months out of the year; that’s just not going to cut it as far as becoming good players and a good golf team.” 

On the flip side, McCarley said that now, at least he has to talk louder when giving instructions to his team as opposed to not so long ago when he hardly had to talk a tad over a whisper for his voice to be heard by a group of four golfers.

The Camden High golf program, McCarley said, in on the rebound.

“I feel good about it. I was kind of worried about the program five or six years ago,” he said. “Now, I feel great about what we’re doing. We have the parents who are more involved and everybody’s excited about what we’re doing with our young kids and the whole junior golf program here at the club.

“I think, at least the next two or three years down the road, we’ll be back in the state tournament and will be contending for a state championship fairly soon.”

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