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Junior golf ranks get a touch of Gray
Lugoffs Tyler Gray is quickly making a name for himself on the states links
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TYLER GRAY STUDIES a putt from the edge of the green while playing a round of golf at the Camden Country Club last week. The Lugoff resident and rising junior at Thomas Sumter Academy won the SCISA individual state championship in April. - photo by Tom Didato/C-I photo

As if on cue, the click of the camera is followed by the plunking sound of the golf ball dropping into the cup.

That is how it was for Tyler Gray this spring. And now, it has extended into the summer.

Playing an afternoon round of golf at the Camden Country Club, the Lugoff resident and rising junior at Thomas Sumter Academy finished an interview while seated in a golf cart and then, proceeded to send his second shot on the par-4 fifth hole to the right fringe of the green. Squatting down to get a read on his putt, Gray stood up for another view before crouching down for a final gander. A few gentle practice strokes with the putter and bingo! a birdie three.

When it’s going good, it’s going good. And life is very good for Tyler Gray these days.

In April, Gray birdied the final four holes to win the SCISA state individual championship. After that, he started his summer string of tournaments and finished second in the South Carolina Junior State Championships which followed a fifth at the fourth annual Jimmy Creed Invitational at the Camden Country Club and a runner-up finish in the 21st edition of the Jimmy Self Junior Golf Tournament played over the Greenwood Country Club on June 4-5.

Gray was ranked 19th in the South Carolina Junior Golf Association rankings prior to the last two events and is sure to climb when the new rankings come out. 

Standing at 6-foot-1 and tipping the scales at 195 pounds, Gray has the appearance of someone who is not your average high school golfer who picked up the game because he may have been too small to play some other sports. In fact, he said, he has always been a little bigger than his fellow golfers, starting from the time he took part in his first junior golf camp at the White Pines Golf Club. The camp was directed by Matt McCarley.

Now the head professional at the Camden Country Club, McCarley has become someone who the 16-year-old Gray has patterned his golf game after since his family joined the club on Knights Hill Rd., where Gray spends most of his time when not competing in tournaments or, playing for the Generals of TSA.

On the day after South Carolina native Dustin Johnson won the U.S. Open and in an era in which young players like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy grab the golf headlines, Gray eschewed those PGA Tour stars when asked which golfer he looks up to and patterns his game after. He nodded in the direction of McCarley, a former Camden High standout who went on to become a two-year captain of the University of South Carolina golf team in answering that question.

“I think it would be Matt,” Gray said as to which golfer he emulates. “He had a really good work ethic when he was (my age) and he’s always tried to push me to have a good work ethic, too. I’ve always strived to have that.”

A standout golfer in his youth in Camden and later as an adult, McCarley probably sees a lot of himself when he works with and watches Gray on the golf course or, at the driving range and while working on his game on the putting green.

While McCarley has put in countless hours fine-tuning all aspects of Gray’s game, it is the intangibles which the teenager has which can take him to the next level.

“He’s a good, hard worker. The things you can’t teach are the things Tyler does well,” McCarley said. “He has a good work ethic and he’s a big kid which is important in golf nowadays. 

“He practices smart. When he comes out, he makes his practices count. He works on the right stuff; he works on his short game, which is the most important part of the game.”

Gray had to be at his best at the 2016 SCISA State Championship Tournament played over Coastal Carolina University’s Hackler Course in Conway.

After the first round, Gray found himself in a three-way tie atop the leader board after having put together an opening round, 2-under par 70. When he went to bed that night, he was thinking that he would have to go lower in the second and final round if he were to make good on a goal which he set for himself coming into the season after coming up short in his quest for the individual crown as a freshman.

“After last year’s state tournament, where I was in the final group, and I promised myself that I would come back and try to win it (this) year,” he said. “That was my biggest goal coming into my high school season.”

For that to become a reality, Gray thought it would take a 68 or, at least a 69, to win the title. Through 14 holes on day two, Gray was at even-par for the round and trailed the leader by four strokes. A birdie on the par-3 15th hole got him going and, more importantly, believing this event was far from over.

“When I got to 14, I was three back (behind the leader) and was thinking to myself, ‘Was I going to have to wait another year to try and win a state title?’” he said. “Then, I birdied 15 and I started thinking, ‘Let’s try to get something going these last three holes.’ It was just birdie after birdie.”

Birdies on the par-5 16th hole and the par-4 17th put Gray in a tie for the lead going to the final hole, the 360-yard, par-4 18th.

Looking to put his ball in the fairway, Gray hit a 4-iron off the tee and watched as his shot which he thought was headed for a hazard. He was happily surprised when he got to his ball and saw that it was still in play. The ball landed in a muddy surface but was still playable as Gray sent his second shot some 18 inches from the cup. With his two playing partners on the green, it was Gray who rattled home the birdie putt to cap off a 4-under par round of 68 for a two-day 6-under par, 138 total and win the tournament by a stroke.

“I thought it would have to be, at least, a 68 or 69 to win it because I was up against good players,” Gray said of the second round number he had in mind which he thought it would take for him to leave with the championship medal. “I figured three- or four-under would win it. 

“When I got into the middle of the round, I wasn’t thinking about (what he had to shoot) as much. I just started playing golf.”

And that is what Gray does best. The young man who rarely takes a day off from golf relaxed and let the game come to him just as he did on his round on the first day of summer. He was using the week of practice to kick off a string of late-June and July tournaments which includes his playing in the Big I Invitational in Orangeburg, a qualifier for the Big I National Championship in Sacramento, Cal., in August. 

Gray’s introduction to the sports started when he would follow his dad, Ryan, who played at Green Hills Golf Course in Elgin. Every now and then, the youngster would choke up on a putter and try to put the ball in the cup. By the time he was eight, his parents bought him his first set of clubs and he played alongside his father. He has not looked back since.

“I decided to go to Matt’s junior golf camp at White Pines and that’s how I got my start,” he said. “Then, Matt brought me out here to Camden and it escalated from there.

“When I was little, I hit the ball pretty well. I did pretty good in junior tournaments. Then, I went through a spurt where I got taller and bigger. I went through a span, from about 10 through 12, where I didn’t hit it very well. Once that got out of the way and I took a couple more lessons and started working on my technique more, it got a little better.”

McCarley said he could tell early on that Gray approached golf camp with a purpose. This was not just a four-hour babysitting session with a golf pro for the pre-teen.

“I could tell early on that he had what it took, physically,” McCarley said of his first impression of Gray. “It all depends on how they respond when they start reaching their teenage years. A lot of times they start going into the social world and they don’t stay committed to their golf game. Tyler has stayed committed to his golf game and it is paying off for him.”

Gray said that as he grew older, he never lost his love of golf. He never thought about giving up the sport and trying another. “I love this sport to death,” he said. “This is what I want to do for a living.”

Rather than just “grip it and rip it” like some young players want to do when starting the sport, McCarley said Gray paid particular attention to the short game at a young age and he is reaping the benefits from those lessons learned. 

“I think his short game is the best part of his game and that’s the most important thing in golf. That’s why I’m really high on him,” McCarley said. “His swing is something he needs to keep working on and keep getting better at. Some kids can either chip or putt or, they can’t. Tyler does a pretty good job with that and works hard at it.“He’s a smart kid. He listens well and does everything that you tell him to do. He’s a great student.”If this were basketball rather than golf, Tyler Gray would be someone coaches like to call a “gym rat.” Rarely does a day pass when he is not at the Camden Country Club. Each day, McCarley said, Gray’s father or, his mother Amy, drops Tyler off at the course around 9 a.m. and will pick him up at 6 p.m. or, sometimes at 7 p.m.“He’s a fixture up here,” McCarley said of Gray’s presence at the club. “That’s what it takes if you want to get to the next level because there are a lot of other kids who play golf all day long. He’s committed to going as far as he can.”If he is not playing in a tournament, Gray is at his second home at the Camden Country Club. His routine is working on his short game every day and hitting the driving range two to three times a week to hone his game under the watchful eye of McCarley. He will play a minimum of 18 holes each day with 36 per day being the norm, he said. Rarely does a day go by when Gray does not have a golf club in his hand. And, he said, there is good reason for that.“I’ve always felt that if I’m not out here practicing, somebody else is and somebody else is getting better. I don’t want my competition to get one foot up on me so I’ve always felt like I need to be out here working,” he said of what drives him on the golf course. “I want to play Division I college golf and then, we’ll see what happens but I want to play professional golf.”McCarley firmly believes that even though Tyler Gray has already enjoyed some heady times this year, the best is yet to come.“He definitely has a chance to play college golf.  He has some schools looking at him … Carolina is looking at him, a little bit, right now,” McCarley said.“I think that he has a high ceiling. He has a lot of room for improvement but he’s committed to being as good as he can be.”