By Dennis Grall
For The Daily Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Mike Nagy flips a 25-yard chip shot to the green and buries the 10-foot putt for a birdie.
Dennis Grall photo
Mike Nagy of Manistique relaxes on the practice range at the University of Tennessee golf complex recently.
It is something he has done routinely for many years, but this time it is at a recent practice session at the University of Tennessee's spacious Mack and Jonnie Day Golf Facility during a competition with his Volunteer teammates.
The Vols were practicing for next week's prestigious Gifford Collegiate tournament in St. Martin, Cal., site of a recent PGA Tour event. It will be the fourth tournament for the freshman from Manistique.
Nagy, a three-time Upper Peninsula high school champion and a former Michigan Junior Amateur champion, has had an impressive debut. He tied for 11th in his first meet, the Carpet Capital Collegiate, with a three-round total of 214. He then tied for 23rd at the Windon Memorial (225) and tied for 17th at the Bank of Tennessee (217). He has a sterling 72.89 stroke average for those nine rounds, second on the nine-man team behind sophomore Thomas Dunne's 72.83.
"It is good being around a good group of guys who are really good players. You learn a lot," said Nagy. "There is not a big difference from the groups at the top and the other guys."
Nagy took a brief break during that recent practice hours before the UT football team hosted top-ranked Alabama to discuss his first two months away from home, indicating it has been a good adjustment eased by associating with his teammates and the presence of UT golf assistant Casey VanDamme, the director of instruction and a native of Perkins who has worked with Nagy off and on for the past eight years.
"I feel like I'm getting a lot better," said Nagy, who has a pleasant personality and enjoys a strong relationship with his teammates but is a man of few words.
He has made "a few simple changes" to his swing, but nothing he termed significant. "It is mainly my posture, I am staying more athletic," he said. His weight transfer adjustment allows him to "hit it a lot better. I take it back and let it go," he said with a grin while sitting at a bench watching his teammates practice under VanDamme's direction on a practice green beside the Tennessee River.
VanDamme later said "he made pretty big changes. That (ease and willingness to change) is where his power lies as a golfer. He has changed equipment, his set-up, his swing technique. He is able to suck in information like a sponge and he is a great processor of it. He believes he can do that."
VanDamme, who has seen every one of Nagy's competitive shots this season, noted "he is playing against the best amateurs in the world and is holding his own. That is a great thing and he doesn't think it is a big deal."
The Volunteers are also playing on some very challenging golf courses, with Nagy noting his plan is to be "really patient. The pins are in hard places and it is impossible to get up and down from some places. I hit for the middle of the green to have 20-foot birdie putts and hope to make a couple of those. I try to stay around par and get a good score."
The Vols played in one tournament that included nine of the top 10 amateurs and Nagy finished ahead of a U.S. Open participant (Jordan Spieth). Beating some top players "gave me a lot of confidence," said Nagy.
His tourney goals are simple, trying to finish in the top 25 to earn an automatic team berth in the next tourney. "I want to stay in the exempt zone," he said, indicating the extensive practice rounds help determine the remaining UT tourney entrants.
He has already played more golf this fall than he ever did at home, where he would seldom play golf once school began in September. His dorm room is just minutes from the workout center and he can literally roll out of bed at 5:45 a.m. for the 6 a.m. workout. In addition to having one of the country's premier college golf practice facilities, a 28-acre, $4.5 million complex opened in 2010 and designed by the Greg Norman Golf Design Group, the team receives playing privileges at three exclusive Knoxville country clubs.
VanDamme is excited with Nagy's potential, as well as the entire team, which will be upgraded for the spring semester when a top recruit arrives from Australia.
"He is really, really going to be a good player," said VanDamme. "He has some things he can improve on a lot. He has a lot of room for growth."
VanDamme said a key to Nagy's future is his mind. "He has a really stable mind, a positive mind. He listens well. He understands. He has gotten it," said VanDamme. "It is like he is playing Nintendo golf. He definitely can make the swing."
VanDamme said Nagy's playing style "is good for big courses. The future is bright for him. Jim (head coach Kelson) says he's one of the best he's had for making adjustments."
In his third season with the Volunteers, VanDamme said he wasn't sure how Nagy would make the transition from the Upper Peninsula to a major city and university, figuring it could take two years. "I was wrong. I thought it would be a culture shock. It is a big adjustment mentally, but that is how stable his mind is."
VanDamme said other college coaches have also been impressed by Nagy's quick transition and skills and have been surprised at his success, wondering how they did not know about him. "It makes me really proud of him," said VanDamme, who recruited Nagy to Tennessee.
He also realizes Nagy is not a finished product and will confront various hurdles, in golf and the classroom (he is in the business school). "There will be bumps, but he will be able to respond to those bumps much better," said VanDamme. "His mind is his glue, and it keeps him together."