What do you think a retiring Hall of Fame college golf coach wants to do after he turns in his team’s final scorecard?
“I’m going to play a lot of golf,” joked Clemson men’s golf coach Larry Penley who announced he will retire at the end of the spring season.
Penley has guided the Tigers’ golf program for 38 years after serving as an assistant coach for a year and an All-ACC golfer during his four years at Clemson.
The long-time Clemson coach guided his 2003 team to the NCAA Championship. Penley’s teams have won 9 ACC titles and 7 NCAA Regional championships,
He has been honored as the National Coach of the Year, ACC Coach of the Year 7 times and was inducted into the College Golf Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame at the relatively young age of 44.
Penley’s record of guiding the Tigers to 79 team wins puts him within reach of Wake Forrest’s legendary coach Jessie Haddock who’s Deacons won 82.
But chasing a record wasn’t a factor in Penley’s decision when there are grand children to enjoy and fish to be caught.
“My family is all close to us here at Clemson and I want to spend as much time with those grandkids as I can and I am serious about getting back to playing again,” he said.
Penley came to Clemson from nearby Dallas, North Carolina and began his association with the golf program in 1977.
When Penley was a college player he was a formidable competitor. During his career he earned All-ACC honors and won a pair of tournaments and top-10 finishes in the ACC championship.
SCGA Hall of Fame member Mike Lawrence was on the team at the time Penley arrived at Clemson. He recalls Penley was a perfect fit.
“He was just a good Carolina boy,” said Lawrence. “Even though he was one of the younger players he always was able to make everyone comfortable around him and he still is that way today.,” he recalled.
Looking back now Lawrence sees that at the time Penley was almost a player coach for the Tigers.
Penley’s coach Bobby Robinson must have seen the same quality. After graduation and a short stint in mini-tour golf Robinson hired Penley as his assistant and a year later turned the program over to him.
Dillard Pruitt was both a teammate and a player for Penley. As a professional, Pruitt was the first Tiger golfer to win a PGA Tour event. In college he led the 1982 Tigers to their first ACC team title.
“When Larry took over things were different, he was a lot looser than Bobby,” said Pruitt. “ I guess that was because he was so close to our age,” he added.
Even with just a few years difference in age Pruitt and his teammates knew that Penley could help them play better.
“I think something that helped Larry be such a good coach for so many years has been his ability to play at a high level. He could tell players how to do something and also show them how to do it because he could do it,” said Pruitt.
As an amateur Penley won four major Carolina titles. His wins included two South Carolina Golf Association’s Amateur titles, plus a handful of two-man championships in SCGA and CGA events.
He also didn’t lose very often when he would play along with his players during practice rounds.
“He almost always got the best of us when we played and we played together a lot,” remembered Chris Patton.
While Penley’s teams were moving up in the national rankings during the 80s, Patton’s win in the 1989 US Amateur brought the Tigers program to national attention.
Patton was the first Clemson golfer to win a national championship and if his coach had putted just a little better he might have opposed Penley in the first round of Match Play.
“Larry three-putted his last green or he would have been my first round opponent. I’m glad I didn’t have to play him to get out of the first round,” he said.
Penley has alway had a knack for finding talent even if a future Tiger lacked a glossy junior resume.
“I think Larry took a risk when he brought me to Clemson. I didn’t have a lot of junior success. I’d like to think winning the Amateur helped the program,” said Patton.
Coaching the 2003 team to the national championship will always be in the first paragraph of Penley’s Wikipedia page.
The team of D.J. Trahan, Jack Ferguson, Matt Hendrix, Greg Jones and Ben Duncan became the first team in NCAA history to win its conference title, an NCAA Regional and the National Championship, three wins in a row.
“We knew we were good and had a great season. We were looking forward to going to Oklahoma and win on Oklahoma State’s home course,” recalled Ben Duncan. “They were number one most of the year,” he said.
The Cowboys had a home course advantage with fans all around Karsten Creek. Duncan remembers seeing a lot of orange, but it was mostly the wrong shade.
“Larry didn’t give us any special pep talk. He just told us to keep it in play and be patient. It is the kind of coaching you could get at any tournament, but it was a good reminder for all of us,” he said.
The Tigers beat Oklahoma State by 2-shots for the title.
“We were all good friends then and we still are today. We are a family and it is because of Larry and what he has meant to each off us,” said Duncan.
Family is a term that is often thrown around loosely, but during Penley’s time guiding the Clemson program it has meant what it is meant to mean.
“When you first get to college you need some direction and I know it is a cliche, but Larry was like a dad to us for four years,” said Charles Warren.
Warren won the 1998 NCAA individual championship and has been close to Penley and the program since his days at Clemson.
“Some coaches only recruit one kind of player, but Larry has a gift to bring all types of players together to become a good team. He always found a way to make it work,” added Warren.
Penley’s coaching style gives players room to grow and be themselves while always being close by to smooth out some of the rough spots.
Warren and Duncan along with several other former Tigers began the ultra successful Tiger Golf Gathering.
The two-day pro-am and social raised much of the money needed to build the Larry D. Penley Golf Facility at Clemson.
It is a time when former players get together, reminisce, catch up and help the golf program that helped many of them.
“Looking back now it is easy to see, but I think back then we knew we were part of something special. Clemson golf is Larry Penley and I’m proud to have been part of it,” said Warren.
Penley had been thinking about retiring for the last few years. Now that the decision has been announced he can take a moment to reflect on his coaching career,
“I’m proud of what we have accomplished here the last four decades, but we have unfinished work ahead this spring. I can’t wait to see what this team can accomplish. We have a chance to be special,” said Penley.
Clemson begins its season on January 17th at the Camp Creek Seminole Invitational in Panama City, Florida.