Among the names inscribed on the South Carolina Golf Association’s (SCGA) Amateur Championship trophy are those of a U.S. Open champion (Lucas Glover), PGA Tour winners (Bill Haas, D. T. Trahan, Charles Warren and Dillard Pruitt) along with some of the best players who have ever swung a club in the Palmetto State.
Knowing that his name will be included alongside those legends is pretty heady stuff for Tyler Gray who won the 88th edition of the SCGA Amateur Championship on Sunday with a four-round 16-under par 268 in a tournament played over the Thornblade Club in Greer.
After a post-tourney celebration with his family, the rising sophomore at Coastal Carolina University was still pinching himself as he drove back home to Lugoff. It was obvious that it was a moment … a weekend … unlike any other which the Camden Country Club member had ever experienced.
“To be completely honest with you,” Gray said, “it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m still on cloud nine, right now.
“All summer, I was working toward this golf tournament. I knew I had the ability to win. It was just a matter of going out there for four rounds and staying focused on every shot. In a golf tournament as big as that one, every shot matters. Every moment is so crucial in that tournament … it was just a matter of keeping my head down and not being worried about what anybody else was doing around me.”
There were plenty of people around Gray who would have given him reason for concern if he would have allowed himself the chance to pay attention to the whispers of who was doing what on other holes at the par 71 Thomas Fazio-designed layout.
In the end, it was a neighborhood battle, so to speak, with Logan Sowell finishing second behind Gray after the Kershaw resident chipped in for birdie at the par-four finishing hole to get to 12-under par which was still four strokes shy of Gray’s winning score.
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Gray began his stay in the Upstate with an opening day 67, which put him three strokes in back of first round leader Jake Carter of Aiken. Carter shot a 70 on Friday while Gray shaved a stroke off his first 18 hole tally by checking in with a 66 to give him the 36-hole lead with a two-day 133. That placed the 19-year-old atop the leaderboard by a stroke, ahead of both Carter and Sowell, who went 69-68 after the first two rounds.
From there, it was all a matter of the rest of the field of 144 starters having to try and catch Gray, who admitted to being a bit nervous heading into Saturday’s play.
“In junior golf, I had been in that situation so many times and I never finished the job,” he said of being the leader at the midway point in an event. “I always found a way to mess up a big golf tournament when it mattered most. I think it was in drawing off of those bad experiences that I was finally able to tell myself how to do things the proper way in that situation. It finally turned for the better for me.”
Putting the past behind him, Gray shot a 67 on Saturday for a three-day 133 total which put another stroke behind himself and Sowell, his closest pursuer, who signed a 68 card for a 135 score through 54 holes.
In another change from the past, Gray said he had an uneasy first hour of sleep on Saturday night before he was able to relax and get some rest for what was sure to be a pressure-packed Sunday round.
“Deep down inside,” said the Dean’s List student at CCU, “I knew … I had a feeling that I was going to get the job done the next morning. I slept OK, you can put it that way.”
Gray’s lead was chopped to a stroke as he rounded the turn for the back nine with Clemson’s Raymond Wooten and Carter breathing down his neck. Gray put some distance between himself and the pair by scoring a birdie on the par-four, 388-yard 12th hole. He followed with a birdie on the 432-yard par-four 13th to hike his lead to four shots.
“I wasn’t aware of what the group in front of me was doing. I knew that with a two-shot lead going into 13 that it was far from being over. With some scoring holes left, like the two (par) fives at 15 and 16, that it was far from over with,” he said. “I just tried to keep hitting greens and giving myself putts to make. I made enough of them to have a comfortable lead going to the end.”
Playing the dogleg par-four 14th, Gray took a par before sending home a tourney-clinching birdie four at the 533-yard par-five 15th hole.
Playing with a sizeable lead and being in the final group with three holes left, Gray was not so much playing conservatively over the last trio of holes as he was careful in not letting his expanding lead --- and golden opportunity to score his biggest victory to date --- get away.
“When I got to 16,” Gray said of the longest hole --- 542 yards --- on the course, “I hit a driver there the first three days, but I decided to hit a 3-iron off the tee Sunday because I knew I could still get to the green in three shots and have a birdie putt. (The 3-iron) was going to keep me out of trouble. It was the best route for me.”
Gray choked down a club or two at the 491-yard par-four finishing hole to waltz to victory. “I played the last three pretty smart, I feel like,” he said. “It was just hitting the greens from the fairways.
“I really had to manufacture my game to fit that course for four days,” he added. “It really didn’t fit my style so I had to work around it. I knew if I stuck to my game plan that I would have a chance as long as I putted and hit my wedges well, which I did exceptionally well all week.”
Gray played his way into the tournament by shooting an event-low 67 at a qualifier at the Lake Marion Golf Course earlier this summer. That came after a freshman season at CCU in which he appeared in two tournaments, playing as an individual on both occasions. He hopes the win in Greer will propel him to bigger things this fall and spring for the Chanticleers.
“It means everything. It’s huge,” he said. “Going into my freshman season last August, honestly, I didn’t have any confidence in myself. I was having doubts about my golf game and I was just, overall, really struggling with my game. Fast forward 12 months and I’m state amateur champion. It’s just unreal what 12 months has done to my golf game. I feel like a completely different person than a year ago.”
Gray’s victory was the second by a Camden Country Club member in the 88-year history of the state amateur. The last winner from the club was the late Joe McCarley in 1957 when the Camden CC hosted the tournament. In a related note, current CCC club professional Matt McCarley is one of Gray’s two coaches along with Coastal Carolina head coach Jim Garren.
Gray said he could not have envisioned himself being in the position he was in on Sunday a year ago. He sought and received help with his swing and with the mental part of his game from both McCarley and Garren in playing a Thronblade course which does not suit Gray’s game, in which he likes to use a big cut on his swing, well.
“My head coach at Coastal, Jim Garren, took me under his wing. He believed in me when nobody else did,” Gray said. “I do some things which are very unorthodox from other very good players on the golf course. He always believed in my system and always believed in me that I would get it fixed. He stayed by my side for a year and worked with me. I could not be more grateful for what he has done for me. He made my confidence skyrocket both as a player and as a person.
“I owe a lot to my swing coach, Matt McCarley. He worked a lot with me this summer and the few things that I’ve asked him to help me with, he’s done a great job with those things. I owe everything to those guys.”
Gray said he did not have to reconstruct his swing as much as making some tweaks to it while re-learning to trust his mechanics. “It was a lot of little mental stuff,” Gray said of the work put in alongside Garren and McCarley. “In the end, it all worked out. I can’t put a price on what those guys have done for me.”
All that work, both on and away from the course, set Tyler Gray up for the biggest weekend of his golfing life and the most important victory of it, as well.
“There were a lot of really, really good players there. I focused on what I was doing and just tried to make birdies and stay ahead of the field,” he said of the end result of his search to put his game back together. “I couldn’t be happier with how everything turned out.”