Missouri senior golfer Jace Long embraces the moment

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:27 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Missouri senior golfer Jace Long played nine holes with Missourian sports reporter Andrew Wagaman on April 29 at A.L. Gustin Golf Course.

COLUMBIA — Jace Long’s mind might have been elsewhere.

The senior Missouri golf standout stood still by the par-3 fifth green at A.L. Gustin Golf Course. It was almost May and, with a breeze that cooled instead of chilled, finally felt like it. He waited once more for his inept playing partner — yours truly — to hit.

NCAA Regional Championships

When: May 16-18 

Where: Scarlet Course at Ohio State University Golf Club, Columbus, Ohio

The top five teams at each NCAA regional advance to play in the NCAA championships set for May 28 to June 2 in Atlanta.

Long was six months past a thrilling qualifying school run that had nearly made him one of the youngest players on the PGA Tour. But he was also just one week past a poor finish at the Southeastern Conference tournament that cast doubts about his immediate future. That future included a graduation weekend spent at NCAA regionals; his college career would end there or shortly thereafter, for better or worse, before life posed a blind tee shot.

And at this moment he was playing nine holes of casual golf with a teammate and me — a hacker who also happened to be graduating.

Given all that went before, and all that lay ahead, his distraction would have been justified.

Yet Long was present. Behind me, he faced a similar shot from the left rough, though he’d arrived there in one stroke to my three. As I hit again, he watched.

My chip shot skidded down the right-sloping hill and past the (very general) vicinity of the cup. Long considered how my ball landed, its pace and break and where it concluded its skittish journey. He pulled his 54-degree sand wedge, sensed the stroke he needed to make and picked a spot to land his ball. Then he hit it.

The ball consented to the trace of the slope and rolled steadily toward the hole. Our third playing partner, Long’s teammate Dakyn Dollens, said, “Look at this.” Then the ball broke the final few feet at just the right time and fell into the cup for a birdie.

Without saying a word, Long had shown how to embrace the moment.

What was and what might be

College graduation kind of sucks. Sure, you feel some pride in sticking it out; you also look back and realize how many memories can no longer be reproduced. And yeah, you anticipate the arrival of the future and the promise it has long held; you also begin to fear how little might hold up against life’s daily tests.

Long is leaving behind one of the most storied careers in Missouri golf history, and he is taking a shot at a career that also happens to be a dream: playing his game with the best in the world. It would be especially easy for him to dwell on what was and what might be, and to avoid the anxiety of the here and now.

At such a moment, I wondered: How would he approach nine holes of casual golf with a hacker?

Not so different

To be clear, a “hacker” is a lousy golfer. Calling myself one might be an oversimplification. I do miss every other three-foot putt and figure the fairway to be a foreign land. But another reason why I wanted to play with Long is that I used to want to be him.

Like Long, I was playing in junior tournaments by the time I was 10 years old. The day I turned 14 I signed my employment papers at the local public course, though I’d already been working odd jobs there for free golf. Throughout high school I played just about every day and maintained a single-digit handicap.

But I came to MU to follow a different dream: writing stories for a magazine like Sports Illustrated. By the end of my freshman year I rarely played. I now struggle to break 90.

Why, then, did I want to play nine holes with Missouri’s top golfer and then write about it? I guess I saw a chance to learn how Long was coping with a crossroads while I was at my own.

Learning by doing

Our tee time was at 9:30 Monday morning, April 29. The golf team practices at Old Hawthorne Country Club, but Long has made it a semi-regular habit during his five years at MU to play in local leagues at Gustin. It’s easy to hit your ball behind trees or down careening hills there, so it tests Long’s accuracy off the tee.

He led the way. The first hole is the only par-5 on the front nine, and it is reachable in two shots for longer hitters. But Long’s swing exuded a graceful confidence hinging on tempo and timing rather than strength. He didn’t try to kill it.

He calls himself a feel player, which means he relies on muscle memory and the intuitive rightness of movement more than on the mechanics of his swing. Feel players learn best by doing, a problem for Long this spring because of the miserably inconsistent weather. He wasn’t able to play as routinely as he had hoped, and by the end of April he still hadn’t yet found his rhythm, resulting in a lot of slight pulls. They are much better than most golfers’ misses but still lead to lost strokes over the course of a round.

Despite the grace of his first tee swing, its timing was slightly off. His drive started faintly left and didn’t cut back. It settled in the rough.

In September, Long won his first three tournaments of the college season, garnering national attention. In October he placed first at both the pre-qualifier stage and the first stage of PGA Tour qualifying school, where he competed against former professionals and some of the best amateurs, adult or collegiate, in the nation. Entire books have been written on the pressures of “Q-School,” so even though he ultimately fell short of making the tour, the confidence he showed competing against more experienced players bode well for the future.

Since then, though, he’d dropped from No. 15 to 50 in the Golfweek Magazine college rankings, and in late April, Long had shot a final-round 80 in the SEC tournament. It was the first time he’d failed to break 80 all season.

His prominent jaw line set when he was asked about those struggles, but he didn’t deny the obvious.

“It's been frustrating,” he said. “The ‘lefts’ just kind of popped up. Out here I’m trying to work them out.”

On just his second shot from the left rough he showed what he meant. Normally he would have aimed for the right side of the green given three factors: the room for error on that side, the tendency for balls to turn over left when flying out of the rough and his recent struggles missing that way. This time he aimed for the left side of the green and tried to hit a cut (a shot that flies left to right) back to the middle of the green.

It didn’t work. His ball started slightly left once again and never came back, landing short and a little deeper in the rough.

Growing up on the golf course

Long is mostly self-taught. He took about three lessons a year growing up but admits he rarely applied them. He defines a clear line between practice and work, and that’s where the golf course meets the driving range.

This just might have something to do with his childhood in Dixon, Mo., a town of 1,500 people that Long characterizes by its absence of a McDonald's. The youngest of Randy and Teresa Long’s four children by nine years, Long literally grew up on a golf course. The ninth green at Oak Hills Country Club was a wedge shot from his house, which the family moved into the same year Long was born. When he was still a toddler, his sister (who played golf at Evangel College in Springfield) and two brothers would stick him in the family golf cart, and he would watch them play. Teresa Long recalls her older children shushing her youngest: “You have to be quiet when you’re playing golf, Jace. No distractions.”

Oak Hills didn’t have a driving range, so after his siblings left home, Long would walk out to the sparsely-played course and do his own thing. At dusk his mother sometimes had to go out and find him. Later still (before he even had his license) he’d drive a family car up to the putting green and practice with the headlights on.

Long considers himself an aggressive player and a confident putter, both learned back home and now demonstrated on Gustin’s third hole. A 440-yard par-4 that doglegs to the right, it is handicapped as the hardest on the course. For longer hitters, it is probably safer to hit 3-wood because a straight or slightly pulled drive can fly all the way through the fairway and into the rough. But Long stuck with his Titleist 913 D3 driver. Once again, he pulled it the slightest bit. Once again, it rolled a few feet into the rough.

Faced with 160-yard shot, Long again aimed for the left side of the green. This time he got the faint cut he desired, and his ball landed on the front of the green 20-25 feet away from the pin. And after seeing his birdie putt on the first hole die off a few rotations short of the hole, Long adjusted. He hit this putt firmly enough to negate most of the break, and it rolled in for a birdie.

As for the hacker? I three-putted from about the same distance and settled for my third straight double bogey.

Staying patient

Teresa Long took her son early and often to prestigious junior tournaments across the country. But the nurse didn’t use up all her vacation days solely out of parental duty. She doesn’t play golf, but she loves the long, deliberate walks along some of the most beautiful tracts of land in the country.

“I told Jace a long time ago that I really enjoy watching him play,” she said. “It’s just great. I love being outside, love being on course, love watching his teammates play.”

An especially close Missouri team calls her “Mother Teresa.” She has made it to all but three of her son’s collegiate tournaments. Just since February, she’s traveled to Arizona, South Carolina and twice California to watch Missouri play.

Even after walking along for hundreds — maybe thousands — of rounds, Mom struggles to read her son.

“You just can’t tell,” she said. “From time to time when he’s not having a good day I see his jaw clench a little bit, like he might be grinding his teeth somewhat.

“But he just doesn’t let things bother him. You have to be patient on the golf course, and he seems to be patient.”

Letting the last shot go

On this morning, the only frustration he showed came on the fourth and fifth tees. His drive on the tight par-4 fourth went farther left than previous drives. His follow-through gave the club whiplash. On the par-3 fifth, when he barely missed the green to the left, he lingered on the tee box and analyzed the shot with his teammate, Dakyn Dollens.

“You hit it right where you were aimed,” Dollens said.

“Really? Felt like I pulled it.”

“Well, you were lined up with that cedar,” Dollens offered.

Long didn’t dwell on either of his mistakes. On No. 4 he avoided trees on his uphill approach shot and hit the green before two-putting for par. And on No. 5 he chipped in, the shot itself less impressive than his careful attention to a hacker’s similar one a moment before.

One last shot, and then a goodbye

Long has taken his last two finals in a sociology class and a sports management class (he’s a business major). He’ll miss walking at graduation to play at the NCAA regional championships May 16-18 in Columbus, Ohio. It’s the final he cares most about.

Individually, there’s the pressure of expectations — of that awful word “should.”

But the team competition matters more. Missouri hasn’t advanced past the regional during Long’s career, and when he advanced individually as a sophomore he found it meant surprisingly little to him.

“Going alone was dreadful, really,” he said. “You want those other four guys to be there. It makes it a lot tougher and less fun, playing by yourself.”

In fact, Long said he was mostly relieved when he missed the cut at the second-last stage of Q-School in November, even though it was the final year Q-School would offer PGA Tour cards.

He wasn’t sure he was ready to leave his team and move on from school.

Soon he won’t have a choice. Mother Teresa says her son has already built a network of friends on various mini professional tours. But it will be different. The solidarity — and a certain comfort level — will be gone.

“Jace will be sad when he leaves,” she said. “I know he will.”

The rightness of movement

Long’s only bogey, ironically, came on the only hole I made par. I proceeded to hit my next two tee shots off course property and failed to break 50 for the nine holes, while he made pars on the last two holes to shoot a one-under 34.

We sat down on the clubhouse patio afterward, and Long outlined his immediate plans after the collegiate season ends. He’ll maintain his amateur status through the summer before going pro and playing in qualifiers in the fall.

They haven’t talked about an alternative plan yet, but Long said he and his family will “look at it a little deeper” after seeing how he plays at the NCAAs and the first half of the summer. A disappointing few months would not destroy the dream, but it wouldn’t be the start he was looking for. It’s clear that his sense of urgency only begins with fixing his “lefts.”

And perhaps that’s the lesson of that late April morning, when the lefts weren’t yet fixed. Truly facing the moment — being there — is hard. But Long has also found it liberating. Provided he can be out there, as he had that morning and would again at team practice later in the day, he can shrug off and accept the rest.

“This is why we play golf,” he said. “You’re playing good sometimes, and other times you’re humbled. Bad play brings you back down to earth, that’s kind of what golfers need anyway. Because golf’s hard. Oh yeah. Golf is hard.”

Supervising editor is Jacqui Banaszynski.

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