Sometimes, it only takes one or two shots to get a golfer going in the right or wrong direction. And as his freshman season at UNLV was continuing its downward spiral, AJ McInerney was desperate for something good to happen.
The 19-year-old former Coronado High School star was underachieving throughout the spring. His inability to break par on a consistent basis was becoming a source of frustration, and he was in danger of losing his spot in coach Dwaine Knight’s five-man lineup.
But during his second round of the recent NCAA Regional in Columbus, Ohio, McInerney got his season back on track. He made a birdie at the par-4 16th that led to a 2-over 73.
The next day, McInerney overcame consecutive bogeys to get to 1 under going into the final hole. He wound up making bogey at the 18th, but his even-par final-round 71 helped the Rebels lock up fourth place and advance to the NCAA Golf Championship, which begins Tuesday at the Capital City Club outside Atlanta in Milton, Ga.
“It’s been a struggle all semester,” McInerney said. “But going into this tournament, I hit the ball well. I knew I was doing the right things, and it eventually carried over to the last round.
“It felt good to contribute and help the team get to nationals, because I feel like I’ve kinda let the team down.”
The adjustment from high school to college is daunting, especially when you’re an athlete. McInerney wasn’t immune to having to deal with the increased demands on his time.
“I had an idea it was going to be tough, but until you actually try to do it, you really don’t know how hard it is,” he said. “The demands on school in college are so much tougher than it was in high school. Plus, we’re traveling a lot, and you’re still responsible for getting your work done.”
Knight said it’s a common dilemma for his freshman golfers.
“We tell guys when we recruit them that this isn’t about just getting by,” Knight said. “We want them to excel in the classroom, just like on the golf course. And for some, it’s a very hard adjustment. But AJ has worked very hard in the classroom and on the course. We never doubted his commitment or his ability. It’s just nice to see things are starting to come around for him.”
With the spring academic semester completed, it’s all about golf for McInerney and his teammates. That could bode well for him and the Rebels on Tuesday.
“Everyone’s excited. I know I am,” McInerney said of having a single-minded focus this week. “The best thing is to not think too far ahead. We need to stay in the moment and stick with the game plan.”
McInerney has something else going for him at the moment — his health. He hurt his back in October while playing in Las Cruces, N.M., and his game suffered while he tried to play through the pain.
But between working with the trainers at UNLV along with the stretching program local physical therapist Keith Kleven prescribed for him, McInerney was able to get healthy, and it’s showing in his recent play.
“It took a long time, but I feel great,” he said. “My ball striking is better, and my putting is better. I’m very excited about helping the team.”
Knight said a big week from McInerney could be the key to UNLV making a serious run.
“He’s been really close,” Knight said. “He’s hitting the ball better, and he has so much natural ability. What we’ve got him doing is managing the golf course and just focusing on each shot. That’s helping AJ cut down on the mistakes.”
When McInerney signed with UNLV, he said he wanted to help the Rebels win a national championship. He gets his first chance to do that Tuesday.
“This is why I came here, for opportunities like this,” McInerney said. “I’m excited to be part of this team and have a chance to play in the nationals and win.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.