SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For the first time in his decades-long career at the helm of the Clemson men’s golf team, Larry Penley feels no pressure this week at the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship. And why should he?
In January, Penley announced he would be retiring at the end of the season after a 38-year career coaching his alma mater, one that’s seen him set the all-time college wins record at 83.
“Win, lose or draw they’re not gonna fire me,” said Penley with a laugh on Thursday after a practice round at Grayhawk Golf Club. “I’m just excited about watching some good golf and watching us compete one more time.”
But that one more time almost didn’t happen.
Entering the Kingston Springs Regional as the No. 1 seed, the Tigers had to claw their way to the NCAA Championship, shooting 1 under in the final round to finish T-4 with NC State at 3 under, two shots clear of the cut line.
“It was a lot of relief,” Penley said of the regional. “We did such a good job at the ACC Championship and we did such a good job all spring. I hate to say we were overconfident. We were probably a little ill-prepared and a little overconfident. And we didn’t wake up until it was almost too late.”
The team joked with him, saying “we had it all the way,” but Penley wasn’t as convinced.
“I never felt like that. I didn’t feel very prepared. A lot of that was my fault,” he continued. “I think we felt like we could go there and show up and make it. Teams are too good. The golf course was too good. And it beat us, you know, but hey, we’re here. Wipe the slate clean and let’s see what we can do.”
Settling down in Scottsdale ☀️ pic.twitter.com/l2N5aFiq6f
— Clemson Men’s Golf (@ClemsonMGolf) May 27, 2021
Noting how the team put themselves in “a horrible situation,” Penley praised his guys for battling instead of hanging their heads.
“I was really proud of that fight and their grit.”
For those unfamiliar with Penley’s career at Clemson, you could call him the Godfather of Tigers golf.
The Collegiate Golf Hall of Famer led Clemson to a national championship in 2003, as well as 25 top-20 seasons. On top of his 83 wins, the Tigers finished in second place 86 times under Penley’s watch.
The 62-year-old Dallas, North Carolina, native is one of just two coaches in any sport in conference history to win ACC Coach of the Year in five different decades (an honor he’s earned nine times). Over the years, Penley’s program has produced 62 All-American selections.
“I really had a 35-year plan, but then I bring in Colby Patton, who was the son of one of my former players, Turk Pettit and Kyle Cottam. And I knew immediately that those three guys were going to be very special,” said Penley. “They have meant a whole lot to our golf program. They’ve all made All-American. They’ve all been great champions. I thought it might be kind of cool to go out with those three. Now Colby and Kyle are going to come back, so I’m gonna go out with Turk and William Nottingham.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also pushed Penley in the direction of retirement.
“We couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t go on the road. Couldn’t recruit. Then the ACC stops us in the fall, so we couldn’t even compete in the fall,” explained Penley. “I’ve got currently four grandchildren under the age of six living close to Clemson and another one coming in September, and four of them are boys so I’ve got things to do. And I realized, you know, there’s, there’s more to this life, you’re still young enough to do a lot with them. And that really helped me make my mind up.”
But don’t get it twisted, Penley isn’t giving up golf cold turkey.
“(Now assistant coach and future head coach Jordan Byrd) doesn’t have a volunteer coach. I’ll need to let him set his feet, and then I’m going to enjoy going to practice,” said Penley, noting how he still feels an obligation to the team. “I still love the practice. I like being on the range with the guys. I like watching them get better. I like watching them experiment and practice and try new things and see what works and what doesn’t work. And we’ve got a really good practice facility. And I like spending time down there. So I’m looking forward to doing some of that.”
Outside of still spending time with the team, Penley is most looking forward to spending time with his grandkids and family. Don’t forget about those young grandkids. Someone has to team them to play golf.
“Might as well be me,” he said with a smile.