Valspar Championship's a homecoming for amateur Lee McCoy

Lee McCoy during the Ka'anapali Collegiate Classic in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. (Photo by Aric Becker)
Lee McCoy during the Ka'anapali Collegiate Classic in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. (Photo by Aric Becker)
Published March 9, 2016

PALM HARBOR — By his own estimation, Lee McCoy has played Innisbrook's Copperhead Course nearly a thousand times.

Growing up, he lived in an Innisbrook subdivision, the Highlands on Playmoor Drive. It is about a par 5 away from the first tee.

When the PGA Tour came to town every spring or fall prior to 2007, McCoy would hop on his bike and pedal to the Copperhead.

"I'd ride behind the 14th green," he said. "I'd chain my bike to the fence and try to sneak in."

He gets in for free this year.

A senior at the University of Georgia, McCoy, 22, received one of eight sponsor's exemptions into the Valspar Championship. He is the only amateur in the field of 144 players. As a junior he was named a first-team All-American and was a member of the 2015 U.S. Walker Cup team.

This will not be McCoy's first PGA tournament. Last year he played in the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship and the John Deere Classic, where he made the cut. But this will be his first PGA event on home turf.

"I've got some good experience so far," McCoy said. "This one is extraordinarily special just because of where it is. I'll have a lot of family and friends out this week."

McCoy actually tried to get into the 2015 Valspar. While home on break, he paid an unannounced visit to tournament director Tracy West, seeking a sponsor's exemption.

"He just popped into our office out of the blue," West said. "Never had a player do that before, but it's not like he has an agent or anything. He told us his story and how he'd always wanted to play in this tournament. I was very impressed. He showed a lot of gumption coming in. We didn't have one to give him then, but when he won the 3M Augusta (amateur) tournament last year, we gave him an exemption in early summer."

• • •

McCoy started playing golf when he was about 18 months old. By the time he was 6 he won the U.S. Kids World Championship in his age group. As a young teenager he remembers toting his clubs to the Copperhead clubhouse in hopes of finding someone to play with.

"Before I turned 15 I couldn't drive a cart, so I would come out here on weekend mornings or in the afternoon during the week and find groups that didn't have a fourth," McCoy said. "I'd ask if they'd mind if I played with them because I can't drive a cart. Met a lot of people playing that way."

McCoy attended Skycrest Christian School in Clearwater, then went to Calvary Christian. At an 18-hole high school tournament in 2010, McCoy shot 10-under 62 at Tarpon Woods (now Brooker Creek Golf Course). The round included a hole-in-one, an eagle and two bogeys. It is still the lowest 18-hole round in a Florida High School Athletic Association event.

McCoy committed to the University of Georgia when he was a sophomore. Prior to his senior year of high school, he and his mother, Cheryl, moved to Habersham County, Ga. His father, Terry, remained in Palm Harbor. The move was made so he would be a Georgia resident, which saved the university money on his scholarship.

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"I went from a 200-person private school to a 2,000-person public school," McCoy said. "It was a big transition but I really enjoyed it."

McCoy won the 2012 Class 4A state championship and was named Georgia's player of the year. His success continued in college. He was on the SEC all-freshman team and a second-team All-American as a sophomore. As a junior, he won four tournaments, including three straight.

He plans to turn professional immediately after he graduates in May.

"Get a little jangle in my pocket," he said with a smile.

His focus this week is on competing against some of the world's best. He has the luxury of staying with his parents, who have relocated to New Port Richey.

McCoy is already off to a good start. His Monday pro-am team, which included St. Petersburg boxer Winky Wright, won. Nerves are sure to be a factor when the real tournament starts Thursday. But he does have one expectation.

"I expect to have a really good time," McCoy said. "I honestly believe that if I get it going then I'll have a chance to contend. The main objective though is to continue to learn."

If he makes the cut, as an amateur he can't cash a check. But thanks to a new PGA rule, amateurs can donate winnings to charity. McCoy knows exactly what to do if he is fortunate enough to play on the weekend.

"A good friend of mine runs a charity called Fifty Legs, which provides prosthetics to kids and adults," McCoy said. "I would donate anything to them. That's a big goal for me this week, too."

Contact Rodney Page at Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.