Blythe Neal can allow herself to burst out into a full-fledged laugh when she looks back on it. At the time, she probably was more inclined to cry than to think about how it would all turn out in the near future.
What Neal laughed about was talking about her first shot as a member of the fledgling Lady Bulldog golf team in the fall of 2013. Well, in this instance, the word "shot" might be better replaced by "swing and a miss."
"Oh, yeah, I was nervous," the Camden High School senior said as she revealed what happened that first day as a member of the school’s golf team. "The first time I swung my club, I missed the ball completely … that’s how it is."
That scene was replaced by many better, more successful, shots and memories on a day in which Neal became the first member of the Lady Bulldog golf program to sign a National Letter of Intent with Spartanburg Methodist College. With her family and coach at her side, Neal completed the three-year journey from being a raw golf rookie to having her first two years of college mapped out for with one fell swoop of the pen.
In each of their two years in existence, the Lady Bulldogs have qualified and played in the AAA Upper State championships. Neal and her young sister Sloane, a CHS sophomore, played a key role in helping get the program up to speed.
"The program is headed in the right direction," said CHS head golf coach Matt McCarley. "Blythe, Sloane and their little sister Ava, who will be up here next year, have played a big role in that. The Neal girls have really helped develop our program."
McCarley, who is also the head golf professional at the Camden Country Club, said he has seen a change in Neal’s approach to the game since she took up the sports three years ago. He said Neal’s game is on an upward path.
"Blythe became very motivated over the last year. She has put a lot of hard work into it," McCarley said. "She has talent and she is doing all the little things you need to do in order to become a really good player which is that you really need to work hard on your golf game; in particular, her short game. Like most kids, her short game needed a lot of work to do and, she’s putting in the time now.
"I’m very excited about her enthusiasm for the game and her future."
Not one to talk about herself, Neal shifted the spotlight to other people who helped her get to this point in her life.
"It’s been hard but I think I’ve improved everywhere," she said when asked where her game currently stands. "I’ve had all the coaches behind me giving me all this support. I’m really grateful for this opportunity."
With an eye on a career in the sports communications field, Neal said starting her college career at the two-year junior college will provide a good stepping stone for her next move, as she plans on enrolling at Clemson following her graduation from SMC. "It’s a smaller school and I know that’s better for me because I need to start off at a smaller level," she said of her decision to sign with the Pioneers.
Neal will already have the inside track as to what to expect in playing golf at the college level as her boyfriend is a member of the SMC men’s team which has helped prepare Neal for the challenges which await her at the next level.
"It’s a huge difference from playing in high school," she said. "The tees are farther back … there are a lot of things that are different. It’s more competitive."
A former player and golf team captain at the University of South Carolina, McCarley has a very good idea as to what Neal can expect once she plays take to the golf course in college. In one word, the entire experience will be bigger.
"Obviously," McCarley said of the differences between the game in high school and college, "there is a lot more competition at that (college) level and the golf courses are going to be a little bit longer.
"Blythe has to keep developing her short game, more than anything. She has the length; she really hits the ball long off the tee which is probably the best part of her game. When she gets closer to the green is the area which she has to focus on."
Neal was one of the building blocks of the Lady Bulldog golf team. In her two years at CHS, McCarley said he has seen a player whose game has improved by leaps and bounds from what it was at that first practice and then, the first match.
"Blythe has come a long way," McCarley said. "Since she first started off with our team two years ago, she has really put the time into it. The better she got, the more interested she got in golf and the more into it, she became.
"I see her working harder and harder now that she is starting to see a little success. She’s very excited and motivated about being able to play in college."
Neal laughed when asked if she could have ever imagined her signing to play college golf as recently as say, a year ago. She shook her head as if to place more emphasis on her answer.
"No way," she said. "And we’ve (the Lady Bulldogs) only been playing for two years. I know God has big plans for me and, I couldn’t be more thankful. I’m nervous but I’m excited. I’m just really happy to go out and do this."
What McCarley thinks will help carry Neal to becoming a good college player is her love of the game. He is also impressed about the development and maturity he has witnessed in his former player on a regular basis when it comes to understanding the game and becoming a better player.
"What I like about Blythe," he said, "is that being a young player, I’m seeing improvement from her. As long as you see improvement, that is what you’re looking for. I think she has a high ceiling. If she keeps putting the time into it like she’s doing now, I think that in another year or two, she is going to be a very good player."
While McCarley espoused the virtues of Blythe Neal and what she meant to his program at Camden High school, the newly minted college signee said she could not have asked for a better experience in playing golf in high school.
Before she left, Neal said she only hoped that more girls in Camden would take advantage of playing the sport which she learned to love in just a short span of time.
"I want to thank Jimmy Neal and Coach Matt (McCarley) and (CHS principal) Dan Matthews for starting the team because you learn so much in golf," she said. "You learn about life, too. It’s a life sport that you can play forever.
"I hope every girl comes out for the team and does it because I’ve learned so much from it."