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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – About a year and a half ago, Turk Pettit sat with Clemson teammates Colby Patton and Kyle Cottam in Larry Penley’s office as the legendary Tigers head coach broke the news. He was finally retiring, but not until their careers were finished.
On Monday afternoon at Grayhawk Golf Club, Pettit sent Penley out with a national championship.
The senior from Auburn, Alabama, edged Oklahoma State freshman Bo Jin by one shot to win the NCAA individual title, becoming the second player in Clemson history to accomplish the feat after Charles Warren’s victory in 1997. Coincidentally, Warren, who beat Texas’ Brad Elder in a playoff that year, texted Penley, “Turk’s got this.” He did, even if the Tigers failed to advance to match play.
(Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Pepperdine, Oklahoma, Illinois, Florida State, Vanderbilt and North Carolina were the eight match-play qualifiers as that race lacked drama down the stretch with the Tar Heels finishing nine shots ahead of ninth-place teams Sam Houston and Louisville.)
“We don’t ever really talk that much about individual,” Penley said. “You know, part of my coaching philosophy is if you always play and practice and work for the team and your teammates, the individual accolades will come. … But it sure is nice when the individual acclaims come in, you know, it really does justify their individual hard work, so I couldn’t be prouder for Turk.”
Pettit has undoubtedly put in work worthy of a champion. He was a gifted athlete when he arrived at Clemson, not only winning a high school state championship as a golfer but starting two years at quarterback for Lee-Scott Academy. That talent showed quickly, as Pettit notched five top-3s, including four straight, during his freshman season with the Tigers.
But he then hit a major speed bump. Pettit’s golf clubs were stolen before the 2018 NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek, and Pettit shot 81 in the opening round. He was subbed out, and then after returning for the third round, he only got through eight holes before withdrawing.
Pettit’s struggles started with the driver, and then that bled into everything else. “I just couldn’t hit a golf ball,” said Pettit, who subsequently lost all confidence and had to take a break. He didn’t play all summer and returned to tie for 68th in the first tournament of what ended up being an up-and-down sophomore season. Pettit also started working with the school’s sports psychologists during that time.
“You could see the anxiety,” Penley said. “I mean, his expectations for himself are so high. We realized he was so outcome oriented that everything became outcome, outcome, outcome, outcome, which was just nothing but pressure. So once we got him rechanneled and got him to more of a process-oriented deal, he started coming back.”
Pettit’s junior year was an improvement, as he finished runner-up twice, but that was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. When the Tigers didn’t play last fall, Pettit took an internship with his new instructor, Brad Pullin, at Squire Creek in Choudrant, Louisiana. Pullin, who also coaches recent PGA Tour winner Sam Burns, used that time to finish sorting Pettit out. In the past year, Pettit has changed clubs, added speed and perfected the high, soft cut he had added to his repertoire. Competing with Burns on occasion helped, too.
“He’s just got this winning mentality,” Pettit said of Burns. “He’s going to win a lot on Tour, and to be around that is special. It rubs off on you.”
So, too, does playing for Penley, who was inducted into the Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2004.
“I’m here because of him,” Pettit said. “He never had a doubt about me. He was probably more sure than I was.”
Penley knew Pettit was special from the first time he recruited him. This week, Pettit, who put together a consistent senior season with seven top-10s, validated that belief for the final time as a Tiger. He entered Monday’s final round trailing Jin by two shots, but Pettit, playing on the opposite nine, caught and passed the talented freshman with a bogey-free, 2-under 33 on Grayhawk’s difficult back nine. Despite two bogeys in his first three holes to start the front side, Pettit was still very much in it thanks to three bogeys by Jin in his first 10 holes.
Jin tied Pettit with a birdie on the par-5 11th hole, and Arizona State’s Ryggs Johnston briefly pulled to within a shot of the lead, but Pettit got it in the clubhouse with a nifty up-and-down par at the par-4 ninth, his final hole, and then watched as Jin played the final hole.
From across the pond, Pettit waited anxiously as Jin drove it in the left rough, nearly found the water with his approach and then hit a poor chip from the bank.
“My heart was beating the fastest it beat all day,” Pettit said.
As Jin’s 10-footer to force a playoff rolled by, the Clemson faithful let out a huge roar. Pettit quickly embraced an emotional Penley, whose career was officially over.
“I was preparing for a playoff, which I thought was gonna be kind of cool, like, I’m not done yet, I’ve got more golf,” Penley said. “But it didn’t happen, and I’m so happy it didn’t happen.”
In 38 seasons, Penley amassed 83 tournament wins, including 10 ACC titles (the last coming this year) and the 2003 NCAA Championship. He will now hand over the reins to assistant Jordan Byrd, though he fully expects to serve as a volunteer assistant in the near future while balancing family time with his wife, three kids and soon-to-be five grandkids.
“I’ll do practice on Mondays and Wednesday, and then I’ll let him do all the other crap,” Penley joked.
As for Pettit, he’ll turn professional this summer. He has conditional status on the Forme Tour, but he expects to play mostly mini-tour events and qualifiers before trying Q-School later this year. He’ll make the leap as a “completely different person” than he was as a sophomore, with a strong self-belief and championship-level game.
“It’s special,” Pettit said. “Hard work pays off. My dad always said if you do the right thing and work hard, God will take care of everything. That’s pretty special.”
And giving his beloved coach a proper sendoff was icing on the cake.