OAK RIDGE – Twelve months ago, Connor McKay wasn’t even sure when he would play golf again … or if his game would ever return to a high level.
Hip surgery to repair a torn labrum had thrown his academic and golf career into disarray as he was set to enter his senior season at Lipscomb University.
Fast forward to present day and the Knoxville native is now a state champion.
McKay erased any doubts that lingered in his mind this past week as he rolled through the Tennessee Match Play field. He finished off his stellar run Saturday afternoon by hoisting the championship trophy after holding off Tullahoma’s Jack Uselton for a 1-up victory in the finals at Oak Ridge Country Club.
“It’s no (U.S. Amateur), but people don’t understand what I’ve been through over the last year or year and a half,” an emotional McKay said after the tournament. “This really actually means the world to me.”
“A lot of people helped me get here. I had hip surgery, didn’t play for a year, struggled with school … and then just bounced back. My parents, my coaches – coach (Will) Brewer, Ben Pellicani. Honestly, this means so much … you have no idea.”
McKay had the surgery last July after the increasing wear and tear on his hip left him with no other option.
He couldn’t get around without the assistance of crutches or even a wheelchair for more than four months following the surgery. He didn’t touch a golf club until February.
“It was just frustrating, sitting around doing nothing,” said McKay, who, because of the injury, will get a redshirt senior season at Lipscomb in 2019-20. “It was miserable.”
When it was finally time to get back to playing golf, he worked with Pellicani to basically reinvent his swing.
“We started from the basics and totally redid everything,” McKay explained. “It gave me a different perspective. Even though it might sound cliché, I realized when I was out that there is way more to life than what you shoot on the golf course. At the end of the day, no one cares what you shot.”
“The surgery was miserable and the rehab was worse, but I wouldn’t change it for anything because I got a totally new perspective on life.”
Pellicani has been working with McKay for the past two years, and said he is proud of the way his pupil has taken ownership of his game, post-surgery.
“His injury allowed him to take an honest assessment of his game and give him time to learn what he believed was the best way for him to be successful in golf,” Pellicani said. “When he got healthy enough to practice, he worked his tail off to implement that new belief. This dedication to his process was combined with a new mental approach that has helped him put golf in a healthy perspective.”
Watching their son go through these tribulations was equally hard on his parents, Melissa and Pat.
“The hardest part as a parent is to watch a kid that loves to be out moving and playing golf laying around with minimal mobility,” Melissa McKay said. “The mental part of the rehab was equally as tough because he hated the stillness and watching his friends and teammates play.”
Melissa believes that in the long run, though, the setback has ultimately been a blessing in disguise for her son.
“Trials and setbacks are never fun to experience, but they can make you stronger,” she said. “I do believe Connor came back mentally tougher. He has drive, focus and perseverance because he knows what it’s like to sit on the sideline.”
“He also had time to work on his short game, as his driver got put in the bag for a while. And he understands the equal importance of flexibility and stretching when you work at this level.”
Saturday at the Tennessee Match Play featured both the semifinal and championship matches on a hot, humid day in east Tennessee.
McKay faced a familiar foe in his semifinal match in the morning as he squared off against Lipscomb teammate Nolan Ray, who was the No. 1 seed in the bracket.
The match was all square through six before McKay won with birdies on Nos. 7, 10 and 11 to take a commanding 3-up lead. They halved the next five holes before McKay closed things out for a 3&2 victory.
Uselton, who had just been part of the winning team in the Tennessee Four-Ball Championship at Cherokee Country Club the week before, advanced to the finals with a 1-up victory over 2017 Tennessee Match Play champion Chase Roswall.
The championship showdown between McKay and Uselton was back-and-forth the entire way with the lead changing five times.
Uselton was 1-up early after birdies on Nos. 3 and 5, but McKay flipped it with a birdie on No. 8 and an eagle on 9.
Birdies on 10 and 13 put Uselton back in front but the lead was short-lived. McKay squared the match on 14 and then hit his tee shot to 10 feet on the 200-yard, par three 15th. He sank the putt to go 1-up and that proved to be the winner as they halved the final three holes.
“Jack was just so solid, fairways and greens, fairways and greens,” McKay noted. “He was not going to make mistakes. The only way I was going to beat him was to make some birdies.”
McKay shared an embrace with his parents on the 18th green following the championship match.
“To see Connor reach his goal to compete again brought us great joy,” Melissa McKay said. “We love to watch our kids do what they love to do. As parents, we share their heartaches and we share their victories. This week was extra special.”
The 2019 Tennessee Match Play began with two rounds of stroke play qualifying, held Wednesday and Thursday at Oak Ridge.
Ray shattered the tournament qualifying records as he turned in a two-day record total of 17-under, 127. His second-day score of 9-under, 63 was also a record for the event.
After Thursday’s round, the top 16 advanced to the match play bracket. Three former tournament champions made it to the bracket, including Roswall, defending champion Oliver Simonsen and 2009 winner Todd Burgan.
McKay defeated Simonsen 2&1 in the Round of 16 and then beat Burgan 1-up in the quarterfinals.
“This has given me so much confidence this summer, just playing as much golf as I can,” McKay concluded. “I’m finally starting to see the reward for all the hard work. A lot of times in golf, it goes unnoticed. It’s one of those sports where you are going to lose way more than you are going to win. So you get knocked down a lot. Just to win once is fantastic.”