Connell's final swings at Central will be in his first state tournament

Monday, May 12, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com Central senior Jack Connell watched one of his drives during the recent district golf meet at Dalhousie Golf Club.

The roar of the galleries at a high school golf tournament is about as loud as the deafening din in a library.

Quiet reigns.

Most of the time.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon at Dalhousie Golf Club, during the SEMO Conference golf tournament, the silence was broken by occasional shouts.

"Go in! Go in! Get in the hole!"

Anyone who heard it knew. Jack Connell's approach shot was making a run at the flag. And Jack Connell the elder was happy about it.

"He's pretty loud," the younger Jack Connell said of his father. "Oh, yeah. You know how I'm playing from his reaction."

This is more than just a father proud of his son. This a father who has spent much of his life in the game of golf sharing the joy of his son's final season of high school golf. It's the story of a game and a golf course and lessons of golf that are similar to the lessons of life.

Central senior Jack Connell has been playing the game, he says, for as long as he can remember.

"As soon as I could walk," he said.

He recalled putting with a plastic club on the practice green at Cape Girardeau Country Club, where his father was the golf pro for 20 years.

He recalled playing his first tournament there at the age of 5. It didn't go so well.

"By the second green, I was too hot," Jack said. "I was sweating, and I told my mom it was way too hot and I was going in. I wanted to go swimming. That was the only time I ever quit."

With such a background -- a father with the same name who is a golf professional; more rounds of golf played than he could possibly count -- it's easy to see why some may expect perfection from the golf game of young Jack Connell.

That would be forgetting the fact Connell still is a high school player, learning to deal with adversity in the game. Connell has learned that in golf, like life, perfection is not possible and there is value in just being good.

As a freshman in 2005, Connell joined a Central program that was flying high. The Tigers had made the state tournament the previous year after tying powerhouse Poplar Bluff atop the district standings. They returned several veteran golfers to the lineup.

Connell occasionally played in Central's top five, finishing 11th overall at the SEMO Conference golf tournament at Dalhousie. But he did not make the lineup for the district tournament. And with the Missouri State High School Activities Association changing the playoff format to advance just one team from district play, Central qualified only two golfers to state.

The following year, Central was able to send a "team" with four golfers qualifying for state. The one who didn't make it was Connell, who shot an 83 at the tourney at Westwood Hills in Poplar Bluff and missed qualifying by one stroke.

Connell shot a 79 days later at Cape Country Club as the undefeated Tigers beat Poplar Bluff in a dual.

But state-tournament heartbreak would become a theme. Connell missed the state cut again by a stroke as a junior, when he was the No. 1 golfer on the Central team. Two others -- Tim Simmons and Jordan Sheets -- went instead. Connell's 84 at Eagle Lake in Farmington wasn't good enough.

The finish forced Connell to adjust his approach.

"I tried to make it a little easier on myself this year by not putting too much pressure, which is something I did as a junior," Connell said. "I was coming in as the No. 1 instead of the fifth man after all the seniors were gone, and I put too much pressure on myself.

"This year, I just kind of let it go and played the best I could."

It worked.

Connell will be in the field today and Tuesday at Island Green in Republic for the state tournament.

He qualified by placing eighth in the Class 4 District 1 tournament -- played this year at Dalhousie -- with a 79.

"I had to go," Connell said. "There's been a couple of times where I was shut down by one stroke, and I'm glad I came through this year."

Others were happy for him as well.

"He's a great kid, and it was time for him to get this opportunity," Central coach Dick Wadlington said after the district meet.

Connell put himself in a precarious situation during the district tourney, taking a quadruple-bogey on the par-3 11th hole by putting two balls into the water.

His state hopes were teetering.

"I was upset, but I didn't let it get me too bad," said Connell, who played the last seven holes in 2-under par.

"You can kind of give up and go through the motions, but he didn't do that," Wadlington said. "That speaks a lot for his character to stay with it and finish up strong."

Connell said it speaks to his maturity as a golfer.

"I'm starting to get older and get wiser, and I've realized some things I didn't realize as a freshman, like knowing how to react after a bad hole," Connell said. "I've seen a lot of shots, so the bad ones don't bother me as much and I keep going."

In a feature story two years ago on Jack Connell the elder, Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson joked that the golf pro had become such a good ambassador for the game with his people skills as opposed to his golf skills.

The younger Connell knows that the course -- even one he knows as well as Dalhousie -- gets the better of him sometimes, but he can joke about it. During the SEMO Conference tourney at Dalhousie, Connell took a divot out of the 12th green while pitching up to the higher tier. He looked over to the handful of people watching, noticed his father wasn't among them and yelled, "Tell my dad to stay in the bathroom."

"I'm glad my dad wasn't around then," Jack said after the round. "He would've been a little angry."

He says he is less animated than others he has played with when things go bad, but he will twirl a club around or give a yell.

"I keep my cool, usually," he said. "The only thing I might do is yell a little loud, but that's just because I'm loud."

He comes by it naturally. His father barked at the ball on an approach shot that closed in on the ninth hole in the SEMO tourney. "Go in! Go in!"

Jack settled for birdie, putting him in the hunt for medalist honors.

But on the next hole, he hit from one sand trap to the other surrounding the green. The course got him again.

"It seems like everytime I play here, I find a different spot I haven't been in," he said.

That's saying something.

Since the course opened in 2002, and his father left Cape Country Club to be the director of golf for Dalhousie, it has become Jack's new backyard.

He knows the course well. So well that he can knock in some impressive putts with a quick read of the greens while others in his playing group study them and still get fooled. Jack said it sometimes psyches them out.

"I've been around here enough that if I make a mistake, I know how to fix it out here," he said.

Although he has never won medalist honors in the seven major high school tournaments that took place at Dalhousie during his career, he also has six top-10 finishes. His average score in those events: 80.1.

"I remember the first time I played here, it ate me alive. It was bad," said Connell, who guesses he shot a 94 in his worst round at the course. "The first time, I was amazed at how beautiful it was and yet how atrocious you could play a hole, how high you could score."

Connell's relationship with the game, with the course, with his father are reflected in his future plans.

In the fall, he will attend Shawnee Community College in Illinois and play on the school's first golf team. D.W. Davis, who recently was golf pro at Cape Country Club and is a friend of the elder Connell, will be guiding the program.

Connell then hopes to attend Murray State and become a certified PGA professional. He would like to teach others and be involved in course management. And, he would like to do that at Dalhousie.

"Hopefully, I will be coming back here," Jack said. "I'd like to come back here and be the golf director after my dad retires. That'd be something neat to do -- follow my dad's steps."

"That's what he's saying now," joked his father.

"He'll be good at it," the elder Connell added. "He's got that serving heart. He loves the people out here and he loves people in general. If it involves people, he'll be good at it."

The younger Connell also loves the game.

"I really do," he said. "You can hit bad shots and you can hit good shots, and those good shots keep you coming back, for sure."

The immediate future for Connell involves representing Central one last time, in his first state meet.

Wadlington looks forward to coaching Connell at state.

"He's got a lot of class and a lot of character," Wadlington said. "He's always worked hard. He's a good student, he doesn't have any problems in school, and he's just a good young man. He's handled himself well, been very respectful and been a very good player."

As excited as Connell is to finally make the state field, he's not going with a mission of proving anything.

"I'm not going to put any pressure on myself," he said. "I'm just going to play, and how I finish is how I finish. I'll try my heart out."

He can expect the same effort from his loudest booster.

"When I make a putt for birdie and I hear him yell, and I know he's happy, it makes me happy," Jack said of his father. "I think that really helps when I hear him. It gives me a little jump start.

"He's been there for me every time," Jack added. "I couldn't pick a better dad or a better teacher."

At Dalhousie

Event Score Place

2005, SEMO Conference 81 11

2006, SEMO Conference 79 T-6

2007, Saxony Invitational 83 T-5

2007, SEMO Conference 79 4

2008, Saxony Invitational 81 T-6

2008, Class 4 District 1 79 T-8

2008, SEMO Conference 79 T-4

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