On the home hole in his 38th and final year at the helm of Clemson men’s golf, Larry Penley doesn’t have anything to regret from a Hall-of-Fame coaching career. He’s enjoyed a national title, frequent conference glory and players winning major amateur titles and a major championship – enough accomplishments to tell the grandkids and feel very satisfied when he’s out on the lake fishing.
But if Penley were to do it all over again, he might have one piece of advice for his younger self and anyone else considering a collegiate coaching career path.
“If I had known I was going to be doing this for 38 years I would have majored in psychology at Clemson,” said Penley, who earned a degree in administrative management instead. “How to push the motivational button; how to deal with parents; how to deal with the everyday ups and downs of a college student’s life … a psychology degree would help.”
How could he have known? Larry Penley graduated from North Gaston Senior High School in 1977, left his hometown of Dallas, North Carolina, and headed 100 miles south down Interstate 85 to play golf at Clemson University.
“I came for a recruiting visit, I didn’t even know where Clemson was and I was two hours away,” he said. “I had heard of it because of (basketball great) Tree Rollins. I came in and just fell in love with the place.”
He never left.
“Players are the reason we do what we do. Our program is built on our current players and past players and they’re family.” – Larry Penley
Forty-four years later, Penley will retire at the end of the 2021 NCAAs after a record 38 seasons at the helm of the Tigers’ golf program. Aside from a brief detour playing 15 mini-tour events after his All-American college career ended in 1981, Penley has been immersed in Clemson’s rich golf heritage for all but the first 18 years of his life.
He was 23 when he was handed the head job in the fall of 1983 after one year as an assistant when Bobby Robinson stepped up to the role of director of athletics. Suddenly, Penley was coaching his former teammates Dillard Pruitt and Norman Chapman.
Oh, the changes he’s seen. When he took over, Clemson didn’t yet have its own course (the Walker Course was built in 1995) or the state-of-the-art facilities it has now. The players didn’t come already equipped with their own swing coaches. And Penley’s earliest recruits such as Kevin Johnson (1987 U.S. Amateur Public Links champ) and Chris Patton (1989 U.S. Amateur champ) certainly didn’t spend a lot of time working out on their bodies.
“We didn’t do any gym work,” Penley said. “We were still under the assumption that if you hit enough balls, you were working the muscles you needed to be working on. Tiger Woods changed all of that.”
Fitness and psychology are the two biggest areas where Penley has seen dramatic changes during his career. And despite his lack of formal psychology training – Clemson has three professional sports psychologists at the school to handle that now – Penley proved to be darn good at reaching his players and bringing out the best in them.
“He just really believed in my game even when I didn’t,” said current PGA Tour player Ben Martin, who was not heavily recruited by anyone and leapt at the offer to play for Clemson in 2006 with nothing but a $400 book scholarship. “I met with him after redshirt freshman year and wasn’t sure I was good enough to be there. Whatever his exact words were, I don’t remember. But he said that he had confidence in my game and that I could contribute. He sort of instilled a little more belief in me that I could play and I got better all five years I was there.
“He was the only one who gave me a shot to do it,” added Martin, a PGA Tour winner. “I certainly owe him a lot as far as what it propelled me to do in golf.”
There are a lot of metrics you can use to measure the success of the longest-tenured coach in Clemson sports history.
In NCAAs – 36-for-36 in postseason appearances; 29 trips to the championship including 21 straight from 1984-2004; record seven regional titles; six top-three finishes; twice runner-up; one national title in 2003.
In the ACC – nine conference titles; eight individual champions; seven coach-of-the-year nods spanning four decades.
In victories – 79 all-time so far, second only in the ACC to legendary Wake Forest coach Jesse Haddock’s 83.
In players – 31 All-Americans; one NCAA champion (Charles Warren, 1997); three U.S. Public Links winners (Kevin Johnson, D.J. Trahan, Corbin Mills); two U.S. Amateur champions (Chris Patton, Doc Redman); nine Walker Cuppers; two Ben Hogan Award winners (Trahan, Kyle Stanley); one Jack Nicklaus Award winner (Trahan, 2002).
In development – 15 former Tigers with PGA Tour status; 34 professional wins (13 PGA Tour, 16 Korn Ferry, five European Tour); one major champion (Lucas Glover, 2009 U.S. Open).
The 2003 NCAA championship team – composed entirely of homegrown South Carolinians with Jack Ferguson of Seneca, Ben Duncan of Greenville, Trahan of Inman, Matt Hendrix of Aiken and Gregg Jones of Florence – was one of the most dominant teams in college history. Ranked No. 1 from preseason to finish, it won six times with a 183-8-3 record against opponents and is the only team in postseason history to sweep its conference tournament, NCAA Regional and NCAA Championship. Penley was named National Coach of the Year and a year later was inducted into the Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame at age 44.
“Even in 2003 when we won the national championship, we had a little ol’ push-up chipping green that a guy with a front-end loader designed – it had one bunker with rye grass on it,” Penley said. “We didn’t have a tee; we didn’t have targets or anything. No short-game facility. And we won a national championship with that. If our players then had what our players now have, no one would have beaten us.”
For Penley, however, what stands out are the relationships with his fellow coaches at Clemson and beyond, and with every player who has ever come through his program.
“Players are the reason we do what we do,” Penley said. “Our program is built on our current players and past players and they’re family. I’m just as proud of the guys that never played (at Clemson or professionally) and are very successful in the business world – and there’s a lot of them – as I am the Lucas Glovers and the Jonathan Byrds. I stay in close contact with them and we have a reunion/fundraiser every two years. That’s the highlight of my year seeing all these guys. I’m looking forward to spending more time with all of them.”
Former Tiger and PGA Tour player John Engler said Penley and his wife, Heidi, developed the concept of a program as “family” and “all in” long before football coach Dabo Swinney made it a Clemson thing.
“He and Heidi were our second parents and great role models for all of us,” said Engler, who graduated in 2001. “We got to see their three kids grow up – some of us saw them born. He created a family culture. It’ll be tough shoes to fill but he’s established a pretty solid foundation there.”
The Clemson golf family is what has transformed the facilities for current Tigers. Warren – another lightly recruited gem Penley fostered into an NCAA individual and two-time ACC champion before turning pro – joined with Glover and Jonathan Byrd to start the biennial Tiger reunion that has evolved into a full-blown pro-am fundraiser that benefits South Carolina junior golf and keeps Clemson on the cutting edge of facilities.
“It shows what Larry means to folks so willing to give back,” said Warren, who admits the one phone call he got with an offer from Penley “changed my life forever.”
Penley doesn’t know what his secret is to developing successful players. There’s no one trick.
“When we recruit them, they come in with hopes and dreams of playing professional golf. It’s my and coach (Jordan) Byrd’s job to kind of help lead them in that direction,” he said. “Some guys make it and some guys don’t. The chances of it happening are very small. Takes a very special person … it’s not easy. I think it’s just giving them a plan and letting them know and realize what it takes to get to that next level.”
Said Warren: “He has a knack for recruiting players who play the game differently. Larry understands and figures out what works best for certain players.”
Their success is satisfying. He’s seen first-hand eight players with eligibility play as amateurs in the Masters. He often attends the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, where once he had seven former Tigers in the field. He was at his mother’s house on Mother’s Day in 2011 when Lucas Glover and Jonathan Byrd met in a playoff at Quail Hollow Club.
“I can vividly remember Jim Nantz saying ‘Welcome to the Clemson Invitational’ which was really a highlight for me,” Penley said.
Penley’s pending retirement actually comes three years later than he originally planned. Again, it’s the players that kept him going and wanting to see through what a special class of veterans – including Jacob Bridgeman, William Nottingham, Turk Pettit, Colby Patton (Chris’ son), Zack Gordon and Kyle Cottam – can achieve on the national stage.
“They brought a winning culture with them and they came in wanting to do big things and you could tell from their work habits,” Penley said of this recent crop that also included former Tigers peers Redman and Bryson Nimmer. “The entire team was back from last year and I said I’m going to go out with these guys. Let’s see how special this team can be.”
After that, what will a retired golf coach – who’ll turn 62 on Valentine’s Day – do with the rest of his life? Travel, fish, bird hunt and hang out with his grandkids, most likely. And since he’s not leaving town, he’ll attend Clemson sporting events “as an alum,” to which his current peers have pleaded, “Please don’t turn into that guy.”
He might even play some golf (he does share the course record at Ballybunion in Ireland). Whatever Penley does, he promises he won’t get bored.
“I’m really at peace and good with it,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of great coaches as friends quit coaching. Our old baseball coach (Bill Wilhelm, whose record of 36 years Penley broke) and I are friends and we had this conversation many times when he was retiring. I said ‘Coach how in the world can you retire?’ He said, ‘Trust me, you’ll know when it’s time.’ And I did. I knew that it was time.”
Photos: Courtesy Clemson Golf
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