Kennerly prepares for college, PGA Tour start

Billy Kennerly (file photo)

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When Mike Perpich is asked to describe Billy Kennerly’s golf game, the River Pines Golf Club instructor pauses, and then answers not with strengths and weaknesses, but through an anecdote.

“I ask all of my new students to fill out a form,” said the swing coach, who first worked with Kennerly in March 2004. “One of the questions is, ‘What are your objectives?’”

Billy’s answer was simple: “’I want to play college golf and professional golf.’”

It is an answer expected of any fifth grader who aspires to the “big leagues,” whether that be on a diamond, the gridiron, or in the case of Billy Kennerly, the golf course. Nobody, not even Mike Perpich, could have said for certain that Billy would achieve his lofty goals. What Mike did see in Billy, and what distinguishes the best from the rest, was an uncanny determination to learn, improve and compete. Now seven years since filling out that questionnaire, with a golf scholarship from Clemson University and an exemption into the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship, Billy’s dreams are looking more like his reality.

That Kennerly’s game is defined best by an attitude reflects the arc of his growth into a junior golf standout. His development has been described as “gradual” and “slow,” step-by-step, year after year. Progress meant steady work and focus, on and off the courses of Alpharetta, Ga. For Kennerly, it was an approach that matched his character; to Mike, it seemed to guarantee success.

“You never had to ask Billy Kennerly, ‘Do you want to play or practice?’ From the very beginning, he would play and practice all day. He was kind of a quiet kid, but you could tell that he was very interested in wanting to learn and get better. And so he’s constantly improving.”

Kennerly’s climb in the junior golf ranks reached its peak last month when he won the AJGA’s prestigious FootJoy Invitational in wire-to-wire and record-setting fashion. After a sizzling 63 to take the early lead, Billy played three more rounds at even or better to finish with an 11-under 269, tying the lowest 72-hole score in the tournament’s history. The title is his first at an AJGA event; it is also one of the only tournaments in all of junior golf that guarantees automatic entry to a PGA Tour event – next month’s Wyndham Championship, also held at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C. Still, as seems always the case, Kennerly and his team keep a cool, calm and sensible perspective.

“I’m going to approach the Wyndham as I would any other tournament,” Billy says. “It’s just different people and bigger crowds.”

“There are two ways to go about this PGA event,” according to Mike. “You can either swallow all of the hype and this and that; or you can get your bag, put your shoes on, prepare and then play.”

Indeed, there might be no more fitting way for Kennerly to depart the world of junior golf than by representing junior golf on the biggest stage of all. The Wyndham, held August 18-21, comes only days before the start of Clemson classes. For Billy, the middle of August marks the transition from realizing his first goal – playing college golf – to achieving his second goal – playing professional golf. And despite downplaying the differences between the Wyndham and other events – past junior tournaments and future college matches alike – both Billy and Mike realize the magnitude of this opportunity.

“Billy asked me after the FootJoy, ‘Do you think it’s the right thing to go play in the Tour event (which would mean missing the U.S. Amateur)?’ ” Perpich said. “I told Billy, ‘Would you rather play in the SEC Championship game or the Super Bowl?’ From then on I could tell Billy was jazzed about the Wyndham, even though you probably wouldn’t know it if you talked with him.”

Perpich was right: after conversations with Kennerly, it’s clear to see emotions take a backseat to facts. His responses to questions were gracious yet direct. He’s always respectful, ending most sentences with “sir,” and he was soft-spoken throughout, whether reflecting on his young career or looking forward to his first PGA Tour event. Billy is at once modest and confident. It is a manner that might first seem at odds, but which makes perfect sense to his coach.

“The thing about Billy is that he loves the game of golf. He’s got that thing you can’t make someone have: he wants it and he enjoys it.”

The “it” that Billy “wants” has never been a mystery: he wrote his two goals on a piece of paper many years ago and, come move-in day in August, will have accomplished the first – “college golf” – and will have had a taste of the second – “professional golf.” Whether August will foretell a successful career at Clemson or on Tour remains to be seen; for fans of Billy Kennerly, however, next month certainly suggests a very bright future.

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