KISSIMMEE, Fla. – It hasn’t been the easiest road to here for George Cunningham.
The Arizona senior was once the No. 2 recruit in the nation and boasted a freshman season that included six top 10s and All-Pac 12 honors. Then he played just three events his sophomore year. His junior campaign was better but underwhelming.
His senior season, though, has been a revelation. Cunningham earned his first college win this fall and has seven other top-11 finishes. He was rated 25th in the Golfweek/Sagarin college rankings heading into the NCAA Kissimmee Regional – where he sits in a tie for sixth through 36 holes.
“He’s really found a way to balance golf outcome with life,” said Jim Anderson, Arizona’s head coach. “I think the one place he has matured is golf is over when he signs his scorecard and he can enjoy other parts of his life.”
That has proven critical.
Cunningham is known as the lead-by-example type, a quieter presence who can be private. But he’s embraced being a senior leader on a young squad that has two sophomores and two freshmen in the lineup at Reunion Resort’s Watson Course. Maturity has come quick for the Tucson, Ariz., product.
It’s had to.
While Cunningham embarked for regionals, his 3-year-old daughter Charlotte was back home in Tucson. Cunningham, 22, lives in Tucson with his parents, who lovingly kept watch over their granddaughter this weekend.
The dad certainly doesn’t shy away from the responsibility, though. Charlotte lives with her mother, Dulce Chavarria, in Tucson roughly 30 minutes from the Cunninghams, and George sees his daughter generally on weekends and occasionally during the week.
The fatherhood experience has definitely made a mark.
“I learned a lot at a very young age, but it’s been a blessing ever since,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham found out he would be a father the summer before he started college. His immediate reaction was shock, and it took some time to adjust. The parents-to-be did consider all of the options for the best interests of their future daughter. A difference of opinion formed, eventually leading to a break up.
Cunningham would struggle grappling with his most important role for a time. Charlotte was born on Jan. 20, 2015, but Cunningham didn’t see his daughter for a couple years in the aftermath. Those events led him down a dark path.
“I was struggling mentally. I blocked it out of my mind. In my mind, I was like, ‘I’ll never get to see (Charlotte),’ ” Cunningham said. “I blocked it completely out of my mind, dove into golf, I didn’t have friends, didn’t talk to anybody. I just really was to myself a lot because it’s like I was just trying to shut so much of my life out that it’s like it was shutting everyone else around me out.”
Understandably, his game suffered. George fought a tailbone injury on top of his dwindling motivation and came close to quitting the team his sophomore year.
After some communication, Cunningham became a part of his daughter’s life again, and after working out a custody agreement, the parents have become a reliable team in ensuring everything is done in Charlotte’s best interest.
“It’s definitely not what you expect when you’re going into college, but those things happen and instead of looking at it poorly, it is a blessing,” Cunningham said. “I was going to have kids later, and I just had them a little earlier.”
The shift revitalized her father.
“It was a big sigh of relief,” Cunningham said. “I became a lot more relaxed person.”
With the peace at home, Cunningham began to find his stride on the golf course. He rose back up, and in his senior season has started to show a glimpse of his potential on the links.
Cunningham doesn’t go for flash in his game. Instead, as Anderson notes, the senior thrives on having no weaknesses. It helps explain why the veteran has finished 16th or better in 10 of 12 events this season.
His mental game is also a force to be dealt with, partially a byproduct of a man who has faced down the demons golf can bring.
“He had some dark times with his game and where it was and probably questioned a lot of things,” Anderson said. “It’s really neat to see him come out of where he was a better player, a better student and a better person.”
Cunningham graduated recently, a development he wasn’t always sure of considering the balance of raising a daughter, and dealing with golf and school. He also underwent heart surgery last summer to deal with a heightened heart rate.
Now healthy and happy, Cunningham earned his Mackenzie Tour card through Q-School this spring and will embark on his pro golfing career after his final season at Arizona ends. That will mean the Wildcats losing its enigmatic star.
“We joke, he’s been the easiest guy I’ve ever had to coach and sometimes the hardest guy because he’s pretty stubborn,” Anderson said, with a laugh.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Cunningham beams that his daughter is easygoing – “She’s the happiest little kid ever, she’s always laughing, always smiling. If you could script a really easy child to take care of, that would be her.” – while also pointing out she’s nearly identical to him in temperament.
What does that mean? A little quiet at times, can stay to herself and is an extremely picky eater.
“One of her favorite things is just plain, white rice,” Cunningham said. “But if it has like one brown thing in there, it could be a piece of pepper, and the whole rice she won’t eat any of it.”
Cunningham is a vegan, which means when Charlotte is with him, she follows suit even when her dad offers to feed her meat.
Cunningham chuckles when he ponders the funny moments father and daughter have shared, recalling Charlotte’s actions that can be a mix of endearing and annoying. Like the fact that she will sometimes respond to a question by making a loud squeaking dolphin noise rather than offering an answer.
Cute at first, not so in a recent visit when, for three hours, she squeaked (and didn’t say a single word) when answering questions.
“It’s really cute, but then it’s like ‘Seriously, talk. Please.’ ” Cunningham said, with a laugh.
Charlotte is beloved in the family, and that won’t change any time soon. Cunningham has gotten his daughter swinging a golf club and has often had her tag along when he goes out to practice by himself. But she hasn’t yet gotten to see him in tournament action.
The senior hopes that she’ll be able to join him for an event or two on the Mackenzie Tour this summer. As for long term, Cunningham doesn’t have the logistics mapped out yet. But he’s clear he wants to spend as much time with his daughter as the parents can work out.
His coach doesn’t have much doubt where Cunningham will ultimately end up in his career.
“He’s fully equipped and completely prepared to be on the PGA Tour and I don’t even want to say someday, I think it’s soon,” Anderson said. “The only thing that’s holding him back now is the process to get there takes a few years.”
Whatever happens, Cunningham probably won’t feel unprepared. Life came at him fast being a father at age 19, and there have certainly been tough times to get through.
Battling on the golf course doesn’t seem so tough compared to other tasks back home. Like Cunningham potty training his daughter last month.
The dad smiled ruefully as he described the process as “not fun in any way, shape or form,” but he figured it out. She stubbornly didn’t take, so Cunningham brought Charlotte to Build-A-Bear Workshop, bought her a stuffed bear and told her she could keep the bear if she got potty trained. Otherwise, the bear would sit out of reach.
The ingenious move worked instantly.
On the course, Cunningham generally stays focused on the task at hand. But his mind does drift to his daughter at times, which can be a boon when the day is a grind.
“If I’m having a bad day, I’ll think about her and perk up a little bit,” Cunningham said.
It’s been an interesting journey, but Cunningham finds comfort in always knowing he’s got a huge supporter in Charlotte at home.
“I love having her around, it’s really nice,” Cunningham said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”