PINEHURST, N.C. – The sport of college golf recruiting has taken Casey Martin to all corners of the United States.
But the University of Oregon head coach never expected that he’d be making a blind trip to Anaconda, Mont. – population 9,227 – to check out a prospect that he only found out about during a game of cards with buddies.
Martin showed up at Old Works Golf Course, a Jack Nicklaus design, for a U.S. Open local qualifier in 2012, but couldn’t find this mysterious player.
He traveled out to the middle of the course – which moves through an old mining site – and managed to hear the sound of a well-struck ball from about 150 yards away.
“Please let that be the kid,” Martin muttered to himself.
It was. There stood Brandon McIver, the definition of a diamond in the rough.
“His swing was so good. So powerful. So natural,” said Martin.
A few months later, McIver would decide to leave Billings, Mont. – where he won three state golf championships – to join Martin in Eugene, Ore. as an under-the-radar find.
“It wasn’t because of his talent (that he wasn’t recruited), it was his location,” said Martin. “He didn’t play a lot of the national stuff, but he had the game to be a top recruit.”
After two years of tutelage from Martin and his coaching staff, that talent has landed McIver in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
“I am lucky he found me and I found him,” said McIver, who was the first alternate out of the Creswell, Ore. sectional qualifier, but was granted a spot on Monday after only two of five open tee times were used by exempt players.
McIver didn’t avoid the national junior golf scene on purpose, as Mother Nature and his interest in other sports played a role in that. McIver played baseball and golf through the summer, and then when the snow and rain kept him off the course during the late fall and winter – up to six months in the Pacific Northwest – he was a standout basketball player.
“It gives you perspective if you have other interests,” McIvor explained. “I wanted to do well at other things. But, after freshman year in high school, I knew golf was my passion.”
Longtime friend and caddie for the week Jake Hedge says that his freshman year was a turning point for the 6-foot-2 bomber.
“I could tell he had something different, especially when he grew – when he filled out into the size he is now. His game took off,” said Hedge, who was two years ahead of McIver at West High School in Billings. “When most kids go through puberty, big jumps happen in level of play. I could tell halfway through freshman year, he was going to be a top-tier player. And then I saw him last summer after his freshman year (at Oregon), and there was another huge jump in his game. And there has been a bigger jump now.
“It’s scary, he’s already so good.”
Martin feels the 20-year-old can get better – “gobs of natural ability, but he’s just now learning how good he can be” – and has spent the last year trying to toughen McIver up, as the junior tries to please everyone, from his coaches to his teammates.
“He can get in his own way. When he’s good, he’s really good,” explained Martin. “I want him to take the mentality of not caring so much. It sounds crazy, but that’s what will lead him to the next level. He has to have some swagger.”
While admittedly still in awe of his surroundings as he walked off Pinehurst No. 2 on Wednesday, he also knows that this is another opportunity to learn – something he never gets tired of.
“What intrigues me about golf is that you can always get better. You don’t have to be satisfied. That was different for me than other sports, that’s why I turned to it and stuck with it.”
And stick with it he has if you ask Hedge, as many days, either back at home or when they connect at a tournament, the Montana State golfer has to pry McIver away from the course.
“When I want to go do something else, he wants to head back to the course. He wants to grind some more,” said Hedge. “I want to go home, and he’s just there hitting 7-iron after 7-iron until we can’t see them land anymore.”
That’s a work ethic that Martin admits you can’t teach, but you can steer it when someone allows themselves to be taught – a trait that McIver firmly has, leaving Martin to believe that his “find” is now the world’s to discover.
“We are only in the first chapter of his book. Maybe even just the introduction.”