Note: The following appears in the April issue of Orange The Experience, which arrived in the mail for IPTAY members this week.
By Tim Bourret // Athletic Communications
How many times have you heard about professional golfers who are struggling to make the cut in tournaments because they are “going through a swing change”?
Broadcasters make it sound like they have had surgery, and there is a logical recovery time. It has been a common story with Tiger Woods, and even former Clemson great Jonathan Byrd, over the years.
Perhaps the most amazing story about the adjustment time for a golfer going through a swing change belongs to current Clemson senior Billy Kennerly.
Kennerly had a trying 2013-14 season. He missed the beginning of the fall season with an illness, and then could never get back in the lineup. When he did, he struggled. In the spring, he was healthy, but he could not crack the lineup through qualifiers.
After the end of Clemson’s season, Kennerly decided he might need a swing change, so he went to Mike Lipnick, a professional at TPC Sugarloaf, which is in Duluth, Ga., near his hometown of Alpharetta.
“It was just a couple of days before the Palmetto Amateur in June, and I met with Mike,” Kennerly said. “We changed my setup, and I now hit the ball higher and with less of a draw.”
Just three days later, Kennerly fired a two-under-par 68 in the first round, his low round on any course in quite some time, let alone in a tournament. He had a 65 in the third round and finished with a 72-hole total of five-under-par 275, good enough for second-place in the strong national field.
Three weeks later, Kennerly shot in the 60s all four rounds of the Dogwood Invitational. His 268 score over 72 holes included a third-round 64, and he finished in third overall with a 20-under-par score. He also shot under par and posted a top 20 finish at the 72-hole Eastern Amateur with a 277 score, which included a pair of 67s to finish the tournament. He closed out the summer with a top-25 finish at the Canadian Amateur.
For the summer, Kennerly had a 69.0 stroke average, and 10 of his 16 rounds were in the 60s.
“Billy really made a move in the summer,” said Head Coach Larry Penley. “He has always hit the ball straight and been good around the greens. The improvement came in his distance, especially with his irons.”
Penley has known Kennerly has greatness in him.
“Billy was very consistent his freshman year, when he had the fifth-best stroke average in Clemson history among freshmen (72.73).”
Only Kyle Stanley, D.J. Trahan, John Engler and Lucas Glover had better stroke averages than Kennerly as freshman. Those four went on to play on the PGA Tour.
“We all knew he would count just about every round,” Penley added. “He was a lot like David May (2006 ACC Champion). He is a consistent ball striker. But, he has taken it to another level his senior year.”
Kennerly’s strong senior year at Clemson was predictable from the time he was a youth. His family lived on a golf course.
“I became interested in golf because of my father,” Kennerly said. “We lived on a golf course (Country Club of the South in Alpharetta), and we would go out the back door and hit balls all the time. My dad was a good first teacher.”
Kennerly’s interest grew, and he played in American Junior Golf Association events as a youth. He was an honorable mention AJGA All-American in 2009 and 2010, and a first-team selection in 2011.
The summer before his freshman year at Clemson, he blossomed nationally and finished second at the Thunderbird, before winning the FootJoy in Greensboro. That win earned Kennerly an invitation to the Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour at Sedgefield Country Club.
“That was a great opportunity, because it allowed me to get experience playing against the best,” he said.
Kennerly shot 70-71 and missed the cut by just two shots, but remains one of the few Clemson golfers to play in a PGA Tour event prior to enrolling at Clemson.
He continued the outstanding play as a freshman. An immediate starter, Kennerly had nine straight top-25 finishes, the only player on the 2011-12 to accomplish the feat. He finished seventh at the Puerto Rico Classic and Cleveland Golf Palmetto Amateur.
Kennerly had some struggles his sophomore year, but finished with a record-breaking performance at the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Regional. Over the final five rounds of the year, all in postseason play, he shot in the 60s each time out and finished in the top 10 of both tournaments. He was the first Clemson golfer to post five consecutive rounds in the 60s.
Now as a senior, he hopes to lead Clemson back to the NCAA National Tournament.
“That is certainly our main goal, and we are certainly capable of doing well in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “Last year was frustrating, in that we were so close.”
Through Clemson’s first eight tournaments, Kennerly’s 71.0 stroke average was just behind the 70.86 average by Cody Proveaux. Twelve of his first 22 rounds were under par, tied with Proveaux for the team lead. He had top-10 finishes in half of Clemson’s tournaments.
With the success, Kennerly made a move into the top 70 of the Golfweek/Sagarin individual rankings.
“Billy has a great upside because he keeps the ball in play, and has shown consistency this year,” Penley said. “He is not the longest hitter, but that is improving with every round. He and Cody give us a great top of the lineup, and you need some low scores once you get to postseason play.”
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