Last year, when Clemson men’s coach Larry Penley bid farewell to seniors Lucas Glover and John Engler, he realized he was losing two team leaders.
With no seniors on his 2001-02 roster, Penley knew that for Clemson to continue its success and challenge for a national championship, someone would have to assume leadership – on and off the course.
And Penley knew exactly who that would be: D.J. Trahan.
Trahan was a starter for the Tigers as a freshman and sophomore, and contributed greatly to Clemson’s success both seasons – including last year’s runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships. This season, though, he not only would have to elevate his game another notch, but also shoulder the responsibility of being the guy his teammates – and coach – could turn to.
Trahan has not disappointed. Leading by example, the 21-year-old junior from Inman, S.C., has mastered his role as Clemson captain, lifting the Tigers to the No. 2 spot in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
“My freshman year we had Jonathan Byrd, and last year there were Glover and Engler. They all were team leaders, guys you could lean on and count on,” said Trahan, who won the 2000 U.S. Amateur Public Links and was a 2001 U.S. Walker Cup team member. “I knew coming in this year I had to step up. We have a young team and I feel like I’m a veteran.
“I wouldn’t call myself a team leader. I just try to set as good an example as I can for the other guys.”
Trahan, an honorable mention All-America in each of his first two seasons, definitely has shown his teammates the way on the course.
Last fall, after finishing 20th in the season-opening Ridges Intercollegiate, he finished second at the Ping/Golfweek Preview (leading Clemson to the team title) and Jerry Pate Intercollegiate. He won the Carpet Capital and was second at the Long Cove Invitational before another second at the Savane All-American, an individual competition involving 24 college All-Americans.
In five spring starts heading into next week’s NCAA Regionals, Trahan only once finished out of the top 20 and three times placed in the top six. He ranks third in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, the highest among American-born players. His season record against the top 25 (74-23-6) and top 50 (128-44-7) is tops in the country.
While Trahan downplays his role as a team leader, his coach and teammates know better.
“He has done an awesome job encouraging our young guys,” said Penley. “He really has been a huge help. He has assumed the role as a leader and embraced it. The guys voted him team captain and he certainly is just that.”
Added sophomore Gregg Jones, No. 2 on the team behind Trahan, “Everyone on the team looks up to him. You always expect him to be there. Even if he doesn’t play well, he’s always supportive of everyone. He doesn’t get on anyone just because he had a bad round. The thing about D.J. is he is very outgoing and adds life to everything he does.”
Noticing the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Trahan on a course is easy: Just stand at a tee box and watch. One drive, and you’ll know it’s him.
In the final round of the Las Vegas Intercollegiate, Trahan launched his tee shot at the par-5 closing hole nearly 380 yards. At the Rio Mar Puerto Rico Classic, he had a wedge shot into the green at the par-5 15th hole after a 383-yard drive.
“If I get into one, I can hit it over 300 yards,” Trahan said. “Usually, though, I average around 285 or 290.”
Penley says Trahan is “Tiger (Woods) long” and that “the driver is his mainstay.”
But coach and player agree success has come from more than killer tee shots.
“The reason D.J. has turned into a great player is his improved short game,” Penley said. “He is so much better 60 yards and in, and he’s a lot better putter. He has really worked hard in those areas and it is showing.”
Trahan admits he loves to play that John Daly-style, “grip-it-and-rip-it” golf, but knows there are times when he has to use more of a control approach.
“My long game is probably my strongest point,” said Trahan, whose father, Don, has been a teaching pro in the Carolinas for 30 years and is known as The Swing Surgeon. “When I run into problems is when I get too aggressive and don’t think things out. Sometimes I go at it too hard.
“My mental game has improved a great deal over the last two years. I’ve learned when to go for it and when not to, and the importance of having the ball in the right position on the course. I’m still an aggressive player, but more under control.”
Along with his college success, Trahan has been one of the nation’s top amateur players since summer 2000. In addition to his triumph at the U.S. Amateur Public Links, where he also was qualifying medalist, he had top 15 showings at Sunne-hanna, Monroe, the Northeast Amateur and the Rice Planters.
In 2001, he competed in the Masters as Public Links champion (missing the cut), won the Jones Cup, tied for third at the Azalea Amateur and Porter Cup, was eighth at the Rice Planters, captured the South Carolina Amateur and won one match at the U.S. Amateur. For eight weeks, he was No. 1 in the Golfweek/Titleist Amateur Rankings – a spot he returned to April 28 following his tie for 45th at the Buy.com Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am at the Cliffs.
Earlier this spring, the two-time Carolinas Golf Association player of the year shot 13 under par and won the Azalea Amateur by eight strokes.
“D.J. has a knack of turning his game up in big tournaments,” said Penley. “He’s been doing that all his life. It seems the bigger the tournament, the better he plays. He’s a hard worker and knows how to win. He truly is a phenomenal talent.”
Now the question weighing on Penley’s mind – and the minds of many others – is whether Trahan, who carries a 3.22 GPA, will return to Clemson for his senior year.
Already he’s being hounded by agents and manufacturers who would like to sign him once he turns professional.
“Obviously, I would like to see D.J. come back, especially with everyone else we have coming back next year,” said Penley. “But whatever he decides, I will respect his decision. He’s a smart young man and I know he will weigh all the options and think things out completely.”
For Trahan, playing professional golf has long been his dream. Still, he loves college golf, the college life and being around his teammates.
“I must admit, the thought of playing for money is absolutely and deliciously inviting,” Trahan said. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.
“But right now, I am planning on coming back. Right now I just want to stay focused on the present and get myself and the team ready for a run at the national championship. You never know what could happen down the road a little. I’ll just wait and see. I think I’ll know when I feel the time is right to turn pro.”