Matt Cooney was 4 years old when his father bought him a set of plastic golf clubs and drove the boy to a Bermuda grass pitch near the Rocky Point Golf Course to take some swings. The father watched in awe as the son hit balls with what seemed to be natural grace and accuracy.
"He hit a plastic golf ball so pure," said Mark Cooney, 64. "He could hit them 100 feet. Four years old!"
Matt Cooney, 28, who played golf nearly every day since then, was still playing, coaching and marketing golf when he died in his sleep July 22 of unknown medical causes, according to his father.
His death cut short an already impressive golf career in which he was a champion in 2014 on the Advocates Pro Golf Tour and a two-time winner on the West Florida Golf Tour.
Cooney's great-grandfather, grandfather, mother, aunt and father were all golfers, so when he dropped soccer and acting and dedicated himself to the game at age 13, it seemed natural. He often watched smooth-swinging Fred Couples on television and tried to copy his swing.
"It was in his genes on every side," Mark Cooney said. "It was always his dream to play it, market it and teach it."
Always small for his age, his peers used to stuff Cooney in a locker in the dressing room at Carrollwood Country Club, his father said.
"It didn't take him long to learn how to hit the ball longer than them," his father said.
He racked up many wins as a junior golfer and became known for coming from behind.
"He never gave up," his father said. "He could be six or seven shots back coming into the final round, and his mom and I would hear other parents tell their players, 'Don't forget Matt. He's back there.' I can't tell you how many times he came back and won."
Under the regular tutelage of C.D. Gaughan at Avila Golf & Country Club, Cooney earned a full scholarship to play golf at the University of South Florida. His mother, Rhonda, died when Cooney was 21, and he had a hard time coping with his grief, his father said.
Cooney left college early to try to make the professional tour. He worked nights at Bonefish Grill and golfed during the day, trying to win tournaments and qualify for the tour.
He worked for several years as a caddy at Old Memorial Golf Club and became caddy champion in 2016 by shooting a 69.
Last July, he found himself on the phone with an old friend from his college golfing days. Emily VanEtten worked for the Florida State Golf Association and Cooney was trying to get into a tournament. He suggested they hang out.
They soon began dating, much of it on the golf course, naturally. He helped VanEtten with her sand game, and she was impressed by his swing.
"He hits it so far for being so small," said VanEtten, 28. "I've never seen someone hit the ball so pure."
Not long ago, the two were playing a round at the exclusive Adena Golf Club in Ocala when Cooney approached VanEtten near the tee on the fifth hole, a 180-yard par 3.
"Where's your golf club?" she asked.
"I don't need a club for this," he said, bending to one knee.
They were planning to marry in November 2018.
As Cooney neared 30 and becoming a professional golfer remained elusive, he began to fashion a career as a teacher. He had recently been offered a job as a certified coach with Golf Tech.
"He was coming to the realization that playing pro was wasn't going to happen," VanEtten said. "He was never going to stop playing, but he was excited about his future."
When he wasn't golfing, Cooney liked to watch movies. One of his favorites was Rudy, a 1993 hit that tells the story of a short, small walk-on trying to play football for the University of Notre Dame.
VanEtten found the film after discovering Cooney's body last month. It appeared, she said, that he had recently watched the film about an underdog trying to live his dream.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (232) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.