Hand-me-downs more than good enough for Tolton golfer Connor McCarty

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 | 9:29 p.m. CDT; updated 10:53 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 10, 2013
The McCarty family has a unique way of teaching the game of golf that has worked well for a couple of generations. It includes handing down used clubs that are sometimes decades old and starting children with adult-sized irons.

COLUMBIA — Connor McCarty's wedge is different from his other clubs. 

For one, he doesn't use it a lot. McCarty's long game is usually fine. 

First tournament win

On Monday, Connor McCarty and the Tolton Catholic golf team won the Palmyra Golf Tournament in Palmyra. It was the team's first tournament win as a varsity program. McCarty won the individual tournament, and teammate Jack Golden finished second overall.

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When he got it, the wedge was brand new. All of McCarty's other clubs are used. 

It's an off-brand club. While McCarty says he doesn't have the nicest, up-to-date TaylorMades, most of the clubs he's ever had were made by a mainstream golf company such as Ping. 

The way he obtained it was different, too. His father, J.D. McCarty, got the wedge in an auction. He already has a good wedge of his own, and with four kids and a job, he just isn't able to hit the links as much as he used to. So, J.D. McCarty gave the club to his oldest son. 

But the biggest difference between McCarty's wedge and his other clubs is it wasn't selected by his grandfather, Jerry McCarty. 

“I’ve gotten everything from the (his grandfather's) garage ...,” Connor McCarty said during a Sunday that his father and three younger brothers were visiting his grandfather’s house in Columbia. McCarty said his family has Sunday dinner at his grandfather's house on Samantha Court every week.  

The garage currently has six sets of clubs in it. Throughout the years, his grandfather has given Connor dozens of clubs that have made their way through the garage. Connor McCarty has never had to buy golf clubs for himself because he has always obtained some from his grandfather. His father and his uncle, Collin McCarty, inherited their clubs the same way.  

Connor McCarty, 17, is a junior golfer at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School. He went to Rock Bridge, where he lettered on the golf team as a sophomore, before transferring to Tolton at the beginning of the calendar year. He says golf has always been a part of his life, and he started playing seriously at age 10. It’s also when he got his first set of adult clubs, a set of Ben Hogan irons, from his grandfather. 

Each club has its own story. 

There's the Otey Chrisman long putter with the mallet style head. The Chrisman, and similar mallet clubs, have since been banned in some competitions, Jerry McCarty said.

There's the old set of irons in his grandfather's navy blue golf bag. Connor McCarty used these until he was 14. Included in this bag is Connor McCarty's first driver, which his grandfather gave him when he was 11. That's the one with a dent in the club's head from when Connor used it to take out his anger after a sliced shot. The irons will be passed down to Cade McCarty, one of Connor's three younger brothers, when he's ready for them.

There's the 30-year-old Bulls Eye putter. This is Jerry McCarty's favorite putter. Connor McCarty looks at it with admiration.

There's the Sam's Club flex shaft 3-wood his grandfather bought 10 years ago for himself and later gave to his grandson for Christmas. Connor almost missed it.

“It was like a Christmas story,” Connor McCarty said. “(He) had it taped up. Everybody had already opened their presents at Christmas. ‘Connor, there’s still one more left.’ ‘Where is it?’ ‘It’s back in the corner.’" 

It's a cheap club. All of Connor's other clubs have stiff shafts. But he still hits the ball solid-straight. 

Then there's his father's putter, the one J.D. McCarty bought in 1985 using his paycheck from the country club he worked at in high school. J.D. McCarty had never had a brand new club before, instead inheriting his father's old clubs as he progressed from a talented junior player in South Dakota to a collegiate golfer at the University of Arkansas. This is the oldest club Connor McCarty currently uses. It is also his favorite.

"I’ve never had the up-to-date, newest equipment," Connor McCarty said. "My friends always have. I’ve never had it. I don’t think it’s a big deal to have the newest stuff either because the equipment isn’t what does it.

"Yeah, having the irons today are different from what they were 20, 30 years ago, but it matters what the player is, too. You can have the same equipment, but somebody (can) still be better than you in person."

It's not that Connor McCarty's family just doesn't want to shell out the money for brand new clubs. There's a principle behind the hand-me-downs: Golf technology changes all the time, but good swing mechanics don't.

Both Jerry and J.D. McCarty say they believe keeping the focus on the form of the golf swing has made Connor McCarty a better player. Plus, this tight-knit clan likes to keep things in the family. 

"He’s got good enough stuff," J.D. McCarty said. "That’s the way it was with me. All my buddies had all the brand new, at the time, Peerless irons and PinSeekers … whatever was the best at the time. Same thought, I guess, that’s why it’s passed on to him.” 

Currently, Connor McCarty plays with a set of old Pings inherited from his grandfather. They're similar to his uncle's Ping i2's that Jerry McCarty gave to him as his first serious set. The Pings are the ones that Connor used the first time he beat his grandfather in a round.

"Connor was dying to beat me, and about a year and a half ago he did," said Jerry McCarty, who is the only person to ever win the Columbia Invitational Seniors Championship three years in a row. "I told both of my boys, ‘If you guys beat me, you will know that you did beat me. I will not give it to you.’ I told Connor that, too, ‘When you beat me, you will have done it legitimately.’"

"Well, you were standing right behind me on a 7-foot putt I had to make at Lake of the Woods, telling me I had to make it to win," Connor McCarty remembered while talking to his grandfather. "And you were telling me the whole time what I had to do to beat you. I ended up making it. It was an easy putt. It was straight, but you were still making sure I had to earn it."

Connor McCarty’s clubs aren't the only things he's gotten from his family. They’re also where he got his swing.

“My grandpa has taught me everything about golf,” Connor McCarty said. “My dad has helped me on my short game, too, and my grandpa has given me everything else.”

Jerry McCarty has been Connor McCarty’s instructor all his life, just like he was for J.D. and Collin McCarty. Jerry McCarty says he doesn’t want someone else coming in and changing his grandson’s mechanics. His coaches at Tolton know this.

"You can't have too many people in your head when you're trying to solve a golf swing," Tolton coach Dean Gregory said. "Connor has a good swing and a good instructor in Jerry, so we try to focus more on course management."

Jerry McCarty is well known in local golf circles. An Iowa native, McCarty settled in Columbia around the time his oldest son, J.D., finished college.

"Jerry's a real good player," said Jim Knoesel, the head golf professional at A.L. Gustin Golf Course where Connor McCarty plays in the summer. "He's more than qualified to teach his grandson."

While he previously taught golf lessons at Indian Rock Golf Club near the Lake of the Ozarks, Jerry McCarty says he isn't a teaching professional in an official capacity. Instead, he uses his 60 years of playing experience to help friends, family and those willing to work hard at the game he loves.

"If I identify a guy as wanting to be a good golfer and willing to work at it, then I’ll do what I can to help him," Jerry McCarty said.

But just because he's willing to help, don't mistake Jerry McCarty for a pushover.

"I’ll do whatever’s necessary to get you to understand what I’m trying to get you to do," Jerry McCarty said. "I’ll even do wheelies to get that through. But I don’t screw around. It’s like, ‘Hey, you need to do it this way, or we’re going to part ways.’"

Jerry McCarty is also adamant about his grandson's golf clubs, particularly their shaft length.  

Since age 10 he has used full-length golf clubs. This is typically before the age when most golfers are tall enough to comfortably use standard men's clubs, defined as 43 inches on a steel shaft.

Because of this, many younger golfers get their shafts cut down. While Connor McCarty's friends were using shorter, junior shafts, he used his grandfather's old full-length clubs. The same was true of his father.

"When I was 11 or 12, and I wasn’t a very big kid, I got a set of standard First Flights," J.D. McCarty said. "They were used, but they were in good shape. My dad brought them down the stairs and said, ‘Here. Here’s a set of clubs.’ I said, ‘Cool. Are we going to get them cut down?’ He goes, “No, you’ll have to hit them if you want to play.’ And that’s essentially what was told to (Connor). ‘There’s your clubs.’ ‘They’re too big, grandpa.’ ‘Learn to hit them if you want to be any good.’"

Connor McCarty said using his grandfather's adult clubs was awkward at first, but he has grown into them. His father says going through the same process as he had to has made his son a better player.

"It wasn’t in a mean way," J.D. McCarty said. "When looking back on it, it’s actually good. All my buddies and his buddies had their clubs cut down, and then it takes you another year or two to grow into those. If you don't cut them down, you start off with the right grip and the right fundamentals, and then suddenly, boom — when you’re 14, 15 or 16 everything clicks."

For Connor McCarty, things started clicking during his sophomore year at Rock Bridge.  

Starting on the junior varsity squad, McCarty worked his way up to earn a varsity letter on a deep team that placed fifth in state. The highlight of his season came at the Columbia Classic, where he posted a 1-under-par 69. But Connor McCarty said Rock Bridge wasn't for him.

"It was basically every day after school you’re playing a tournament against your own teammates because everybody’s fighting for their spot," Connor McCarty said. 

Educated at Columbia Catholic School until eighth grade, Connor McCarty said he switched to Tolton to be in a faith-based environment. He also said he's becoming a better golfer at the Catholic high school.

"I like Tolton better because I think I’m learning a little bit more, and I have more potential to get better," Connor McCarty said.

Getting better at golf has been on Connor McCarty's mind since he was a 10-year-old receiving his first set of his grandfather's clubs. He expressed this desire on a goal board, which has hung on his bedroom wall since he was 9.

Over the years, McCarty worked his way through his goals.

"Break 40 over 9 holes. Break 80 over 18. Earn a JV letter as a freshman. Earn a varsity letter as a sophomore. Win an individual tournament."

Many of the goals are crossed off, but there's one that McCarty will have to wait to accomplish.

"As far as I can remember 'play college golf' has been on there," J.D. McCarty said. 

Connor McCarty said he wants to play at William Woods University because he knows the coach and likes its business program. He's looking at a few other schools, but he knows he wants to be close to home, close to his grandfather and close to the garage where he started his journey through golf — the thing he says holds his family together. 

He wants to be there to see his uncle teach his 3-year-old son the proper putting grip. He wants to be there when Cade McCarty tries to launch a ball with the R9 driver for the first time. He wants to be at the house on Samantha Court when his family gathers to watch the Masters, as they'll do this weekend. 

He wants to be there when it's time for his youngest brother, C.J. McCarty, to find the last of the presents during Christmas, unwrap the gift paper and find a wedge or an iron or whatever club his grandfather has carefully selected for him, grip it in his hands and call it his own.

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