COLUMBIA — He wasn't supposed to miss this.
Jerry McCarty had been there for every step of grandson Connor McCarty's golf career. He picked out his grandson's clubs, from his first set of irons to a Sam's Club 3-wood that Connor McCarty unwrapped during Christmas. He drove him to Columbia courses every day in the summers, his promising grandson befriending all of the man's golf buddies on the links.
SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT HIS CLUBS: Connor McCarty has used his grandfather's clubs and coaching to play the game that he says brings his family together. (This story is available to Missourian digital members.)
Jerry McCarty had given his first grandson the gift of golf, but he couldn't be at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School on Feb. 20 to see him sign with Culver-Stockton College and become the first athlete in Tolton's three-year history to ink a national letter of intent.
The rest of the McCarty family was there, including Connor's uncle, Collin McCarty; his cousins; and three brothers. It was just like the weekly Sunday dinners Jerry McCarty and his wife, Fran, hosted at their home.
Friends of the young athlete filled the rest of the commons at Tolton.
"Go Connor," they said as Connor McCarty took a seat next to his mother, Tracey, and his father, J.D.
After an introduction by Tolton athletic director Chad Masters, Connor McCarty was asked for a brief statement. He nervously tried to deliver one, knowing the person he wanted to thank the most would not hear his words.
"I wouldn’t be here without my family," he began. "You guys know my grandpa passed away in October. He was the biggest part of this. Without him, we wouldn’t be here today."
A legitimate win
Connor McCarty remembers the first time he beat his grandfather like it was yesterday.
It was 2 1/2 years ago. He needed to make a 7-foot putt at Lake of the Woods Golf Course to win. Jerry McCarty made certain his grandson knew the magnitude of the situation.
"He was dying to beat me," Jerry McCarty said in 2013. "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.'"
Jerry McCarty stood behind his grandson as he sank the putt. Connor McCarty's confidence grew after he won. He started regularly beating his grandfather and impressing in tournaments, but there was no question who was the master and who was the pupil. After all, Jerry McCarty was one of the most respected golf instructors in mid-Missouri.
"He's been involved with the golf community for years in Columbia," Tolton coach Dean Gregory said of Jerry McCarty, who was the only person to win the Columbia Invitational Seniors Championship three years in a row. "I never really tried to mess with Connor’s swing that much because his grandfather was his swing coach."
Jerry McCarty worked as a financial broker for Edward Jones and as a teaching professional at various golf courses. Born in Emmetsburg, Iowa, in 1945, McCarty traveled all over the nation because of golf. He played at Eastern New Mexico University on a scholarship. He lived in South Dakota and Kentucky before becoming a teaching pro at Moila Country Club in St. Joseph. After marrying Fran Curtin on Valentine's Day 1969, McCarty lived the rest of his life in Missouri. A lot of that time was spent helping other golfers.
"Jerry would just be on the course relaxing, reading a book," Fran McCarty said. "Maybe some guy over there is struggling hitting the ball. He would just walk over there and say, ‘I can show you what you’re doing (wrong), if you don’t mind.’ Jerry would show him in two minutes. Jerry would do stuff like that because he wanted things done his way."
"He was very direct," Tolton coach Gregory said, chuckling. "You’d have no problem figuring out what he was thinking, because he’d tell ya."
McCarty was particularly stubborn about his sons' and grandsons' golf clubs.
He refused to let them get their club shafts cut down when they were kids, instead having them use full-length clubs as early as age 10. McCarty believed shorter clubs disrupted the learning process and made transitioning to bigger clubs more difficult.
"I’ve always believed in playing with the big clubs," he said in 2013. "If they want to choke up, fine. Playing with those cut-off clubs is a detriment to their growth, I think. Let’s say they’re too big when they get them. Then the time comes when they transition and get a little bit stronger at 14 or 15, then it’s a much easier transition into the clubs."
Jerry McCarty died on Oct. 6. Connor got the news from his dad around noon.
He took his younger brother, C.J., to a friend's house. C.J. McCarty, not fully aware of his grandfather's deteriorating health, related to heart problems, wondered why they weren't going to his grandparents' house like they always did before Sunday dinners.
"When's grandpa coming back?" he asked. "Is grandpa coming back?"
Connor McCarty, 18, had trouble responding.
"That was a question I had to not break down to answer," he said.
The McCartys gathered at the house on Samantha Court that night and prayed together. They still had Sunday dinner.
'This is what he wanted'
It wasn't supposed to be this day.
Connor McCarty wanted his signing to be on Feb. 14, his grandparents' wedding anniversary. That date didn't work for some of his coaches, so he spent the day with his grandmother instead.
"Valentine's Day was our anniversary, so that was really hard for me," Fran McCarty said. "Connor brought me flowers, and my daughter-in-law brought me strawberries.
"They're there for me. We're fine. We're going to be fine."
On the day of her grandson's signing, Fran McCarty gave a donation to the Tolton golf program in honor of her husband. There are other memorials planned for Jerry McCarty, including planting a tree at A.L. Gustin Golf Courseand starting a scholarship for youth golfers. Fran McCarty said her husband particularly enjoyed helping young golfers.
"This is what he wanted," she said of her grandson's realizing his dream of playing college golf. "He wanted to see this. Jerry’s been ill 20-plus years. He didn’t even think he’d see Connor be born. He’s 18. He got to see all that. He got to see him play golf. He got to see him beat him. Jerry didn’t even think he’d be around for it, but he was."
Now, as the oldest grandson, Connor McCarty plans to return home often to be with his tight-knit family.
"Family is really everything for me, and I want to be close to home and be able to be here," he said. "I don’t want to be away from my brothers."
About five months after his grandfather's death, Connor McCarty still remembers telling C.J. that they had lost their hero. When he comes home, though, he'll also remember the good times he had with "Papaw."
He'll remember beating Jerry McCarty at Lake of the Woods Golf Course. He'll remember his little cousin, Malley, picking out her grandfather in a photograph, keeping his memory alive despite hardly knowing him.
He'll remember going to Sunday dinners on Samantha Court, greeting his grandfather at the door and talking about the game they shared.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.