By RAY McCARTHY
Sean Dale had an epiphany when he shot 80-84 at last year’s Verizon Junior Heritage to finish 44th in the 46-player field. The five-hour drive from Hilton Head Island, S.C., back to Jacksonville, Fla., left plenty of time for painful introspection and self-doubt.
“Me and my dad had a conversation about if I wanted to keep (playing competitive golf). I was tired of it, I was really frustrated,” Dale said, “but right before we got home, I said, Dad, I’m going to put everything into golf, I’m going to do everything I can to get better,’ and since then, I haven’t looked back.”
Dale, now ranked 11th in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, has torn through junior tournaments in the past four months. He’s won three consecutive FCWT events, highlighted by a birdie Jan. 6 on the famed 18th hole at TPC Sawgrass’ Players Stadium Course to win the FCWT/Golfweek Boys Invitational. In the middle of that stretch, he made it to the finals of the AJGA’s Polo Golf Junior Classic.
“Since that day (at the Junior Heritage), he and I haven’t talked about it much,” Sean’s father, Bob, said. “His work ethic has dramatically changed. He’s worked hard on his game and hard on his body.”
Todd Anderson, the director of instruction at Sea Island Golf Learning Center, has been instrumental in Dale’s drastic improvement. Dale came to Anderson with a laid-off, flat position at the top of his swing, but Anderson has improved the plane of his backswing.
“I try to get my junior students to understand that golf is important, but at the same time, they have to understand how to operate on the golf course,” Anderson said. “I thought Sean was very hard on himself, not giving himself enough credit for good golf shots, and not being able to let go of the bad shots.”
In November, Dale entered the Polo at No. 38 in Golfweek’s rankings, but felt as if he belonged among the best after making the quarterfinals at the U.S. Junior.
“Before the U.S. Junior, I looked at Peter (Uihlein) and Bud (Cauley) as top junior golfers, and I didn’t consider myself anywhere near that,” Dale said, “but after I made it to the quarterfinals, it gave me a lot of confidence, saying, I made it farther than a lot of the good juniors.’ ”
Dale squeaked by Tommy Chung Hao Mou in his first match at Polo with what he called one of his worst rounds of the tournament. He then rattled off wins over Ping Invitational champion Gregor Main in the Round of 16, and avenged his loss to Wesley Graham in the U.S. Junior by beating Golfweek’s top-ranked junior, 3 and 2, in the Polo quarterfinals.
A birdie on the 17th hole of his semifinal match with William Kropp powered Dale to a 1-up victory and a berth in the final against Bjorn Akesson, where he lost, 3 and 2.
Dale had won the FCWT’s World Golf Village Open two weeks earlier thanks to a final-hole birdie. He used the momentum from his run at Polo to win two more FCWT events. He birdied his final two holes Dec. 2 to win the Grand Cypress Classic by two strokes, then closed the Golfweek Invitational at TPC Sawgrass with a birdie to win by one.
“It feels good (winning three times in a row),” Dale said. “You just have the confidence, and you just feel like you’re going to win.”
Dale is hoping his success will carry over to his freshman season at Ole Miss this fall. He’s set a personal goal to be named SEC Freshman Player of the Year, but knows he can learn a lot from the upperclassmen and head coach Ernest Ross.
“I’m going to take as much as advice from anyone I can,” Dale said.
Dale doesn’t think his mindset will change at all as he makes the move to college golf, though.
“I don’t feel any pressure when I go on the golf course,” he said.
Pressure is nothing when you’ve climbed from the bottom.
Ray McCarthy is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail email@example.com.