PALM HARBOR — The picture is haphazardly staged, and a bit out of focus. Which is to say, it could have been taken by any parent in any rec sports league in any gym in America.
Two cousins, side by side, wearing basketball T-shirts and little kid grins. They grew up a few miles apart with only a county line and their choice of dreams separating them.
Dean, the one on the left, is a year younger and, from the look of the picture, already a head taller. He has visions of basketball glory. Nick, the one on the right, is mostly on the court to pass the time. His world, instead, revolves around golf.
Two boys with two dreams in one unremarkable photo. Except, for this:
A decade later, their dreams would come true a few hours, and 3,000 miles, apart.
• • •
Who knows what the future holds? Maybe Thursday was the pinnacle of a lifetime for one, or both, of the Gabrelcik boys. Or maybe it was the first of even more remarkable days to come.
Shortly after 2:30 p.m., Nick Gabrelcik was introduced to a raucous ovation from family and friends on the 10th tee at Innisbrook Resort in the Valspar Championship. The same course that he plays daily in the summertime, the same tournament that he worked as a teenage volunteer, was now the place where he made his PGA Tour debut as an amateur.
Nick is 21 now and a junior at the University of North Florida after graduating from Mitchell High in Pasco County. He is also a past winner of the Phil Mickelson Award, given to the top freshman golfer in the nation, and is currently the No. 12-ranked amateur in the world.
“Since he was 7 years old, that kid has shown things in this sport, in this game, that just weren’t normal,” said his father, Don Gabrelcik.
As Nick stook over the ball for his first shot of the day, his uncle, Tim Gabrelick, was nearby recording the moment on his iPhone. Captioning the video “Looking good” he texted it to his son Dean.
“Yessir!” came the reply.
Dean’s absence was notable, but also excusable. A 6-4 shooting guard who helped East Lake High reach the state Final Four in Class 6A in 2020, he was about to take part in his first NCAA Tournament game with UNC Asheville against UCLA on an NBA court in Sacramento later Thursday evening.
“We played a ton of sports together growing up, and now he’s in a PGA tournament and I’ve got March Madness on the same day,” Dean said later by phone. “You couldn’t have written it any better than that, could you?”
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Two boys from working-class families with Pittsburgh roots and undiscovered futures laid out before them. There were no fancy swing coaches and no big-time recruiters banging on their doors. Just a love of their games, and an unshakeable passion to succeed.
“Don and Annette had to pinch pennies and do whatever they could to allow Nick to play golf as much as possible,” Tim Gabrelick said. “None of us had money to travel all around, but we worked our 40-hour weeks so the kids could excel in whatever they were doing.”
• • •
It wasn’t planned this way. In fact, two weeks ago, it seemed incredibly unlikely.
In the championship game of the Big South Conference tournament, UNC Asheville trailed Campbell 66-52 with less than eight minutes remaining before a furious rally led to a 77-73 victory and punched the program’s ticket for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016.
Meanwhile, there were only so many openings in the Valspar field and only so many sponsor’s exemptions for amateurs. Nick had a shot, but only if the results at the Players Championship a week ago did not produce too many automatic berths for Valspar.
“It was the most stressful two days I’ve ever had. It was just brutal,” Nick said. “One of the guys I needed to finish outside the top 10 was in sixth through nine holes on Sunday. I was like, ‘Okay, well this isn’t going to work out.’ I was planning on coming home for a few days anyway, so I just hopped in the car and started driving so I wasn’t watching or obsessing over it.”
Somewhere in Ocala, a couple of hours from the family home in Trinity, Nick got word from the Valspar people: They had an exemption for him and he’d be teeing off on Thursday afternoon.
An hour or so later, the NCAA Tournament field was announced and Dean’s UNC Asheville team had a Thursday night date.
Two boys, two dreams, heading toward one incredible day.
• • •
For Nick, there is a sense of familiarity to the day. Not just because this was a course he’s been around his entire life but because of the path he took to get here. He used to tag along with his brother Donnie — who is five years older — and has been facing more accomplished competitors ever since.
He was beating college kids in amateur tournaments when he was still in high school and now was facing some of the best golfers in the world with Donnie on his bag as caddie.
“It crossed my mind a little bit before the round, but especially now just sitting back and thinking about how crazy this is,” Donnie said as the sun began to fade following Thursday’s opening round. “We grew up volunteering and working at the Valspar. That’s 12-14 years of our lives, working the range or being the standard bearers with the signs and now he’s playing against guys we used to watch. It’s like it’s come full circle.”
Nick struck the ball incredibly well in the first round, but struggled with his putts. After playing the first eight holes at even par, he was 4 over on the final 10 and looking at an uphill climb to survive the cut.
There was a whiff of disappointment as the family got together following the round and headed to dinner at WingHouse. By 10 p.m., they were back home in Trinity in time for UNC Asheville’s tipoff against UCLA. The Bulldogs, with three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup, struggled against the No. 2 Bruins and Dean, a redshirt freshman, spent the night on the bench.
With an earlier tee time for the second round, there was talk of heading to bed before it got too late on Thursday night. Still, the Gabrelciks all managed to stay up past midnight and were eventually rewarded when Dean made an appearance in the final minutes of an 86-53 loss.
“You know,” Annette told the family, “we had a Gabrelcik on TV in two different sports today.”
• • •
The cousins don’t get together as often as they once did. They’re in different college towns with different lives to lead. They’ll see each other around the holidays and might have the odd phone call or exchange the occasional text.
Otherwise, they’re still busy chasing their own dreams as far as they can go. Following his back-nine ordeal on Thursday, Nick got up Friday morning and birdied the first three holes of the day. He finished the round at 4 under to reach even par after 36 holes and survive the cut in his first PGA event.
Turns out, there will still be a Gabrelcik on TV this weekend.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.