MURRELLS INLET — As a native of the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, Wash., Ricky McDonald knew very little about the Myrtle Beach area prior to 2013.
His knowledge was based solely on his participation as a 16-year-old in the Palmetto High School Golf Championship, which is held annually on several area courses.
Yet those few days on the Grand Strand made enough of an impression to convince him to move to Pawleys Island early in 2013, and that relocation has triggered a series of events that have helped him qualify for PGA Tour Canada and led to a sponsorship agreement that has him secure financially to pursue his progressing pro golf aspirations.
“Moving here was honestly the best thing I could have ever done,” McDonald said. “Getting away from my life back home and just kind of starting fresh out here was really what I needed.”
McDonald, who lives at True Blue Plantation and is a member of Wachesaw Plantation Club, left the Strand on Wednesday to begin the 12-event 2014 PGA Tour Canada season, which runs through mid-September. It begins with the PC Financial Open in Vancouver next Thursday through Sunday.
He qualified for the tour at one of three qualifying tournaments, shooting a 74-74-70-74–292 in difficult weather and course conditions at Reunion Resort in Kissimmee, Fla., to tie for sixth and earn one of 18 fully exempt spots from the site. Other qualifiers were held in California and Canada.
“It kind of solidifies and validates everything I’ve been doing and all the hard work I’ve been putting in with my coach,” said McDonald, who works with area instructor Mel Sole.
PGA Tour Canada is a feeder of the Web.com Tour and features $150,000 tournaments. The top five finishers on the 2014 money list will earn 2015 Web.com playing privileges, and at least 25 players per year graduate to the PGA Tour from the Web.com, which features event purses between $550,000 and $1 million.
McDonald, 23, has come a long way in a relatively short time. Just four years ago, he gave up on the game and went a full year without hitting a golf ball.
That came after he showed promise as a junior golfer, qualifying for the U.S. Amateur in both 2007 and 2008. It was in 2007 that he played on the Strand as a member of a high school team in Palm Springs, Calif.
Because the golf season is so short in the northwest, McDonald traveled south and moved in with a family he met through junior golf competitions that lived at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He lasted just six months there, however. “I was a little bit homesick being 16 years old,” McDonald said.
His college stint was also short. He received a golf scholarship from NCAA Division II Cal State East Bay outside Oakland and played on the team as a freshman before returning home. “I guess at that point in time I probably wasn’t mature enough to be able to be on my own,” McDonald said. “I definitely needed to take a step back.”
After leaving college, McDonald returned to a job he’d had in high school in the golf shop of a driving range, but didn’t play for a year.
“I definitely lost the passion for the game,” McDonald said. “I think I just got burned out from being a junior player, because for three months straight I would play every single day all day.
“I just completely stepped away from the game.”
Once his interest in the game revitalized in 2011, McDonald returned to the family in the California desert for a couple months to work on his game, then turned pro. “Once the spark was back, I mean, it was on,” McDonald said. “I knew I had some talents in golf and wanted to really dive back into it.”
McDonald won his first pro tournament on the now-defunct National Pro Golf Tour, then finished second in a larger event on the same tour at 18-under par.
“I have always known I’m a really, really good player,” he said. “I guess I never knew how far it could take me just because nothing is a guarantee in golf. You can be one of the best golfers but it can never really turn into anything.
“To be able to kind of get my feet wet in professional golf and to have a little success early was enough to say, ‘You just have to keep at it and keep on working hard and you’ll be able to get to the next level,’ even when other people might have thought that I never even had a chance. Personally I always thought I could do it and make it.”
McDonald figured a change in scenery would help him focus on his career, and he recalled playing True Blue in the high school tournament. “I always thought it was a very, very nice course and it was somewhere I could see myself living,” McDonald said. “For it being the only place I had been to, I chose there to live.”
Friend Alex Miyares packed some of his belongings in McDonald’s car and moved to the Strand with him. Miyares has been working at the True Blue bag drop and will caddie for McDonald in Canada.
At True Blue, McDonald met a friend of Wachesaw member Mike Daniels, and Daniels invited him to play a round at the private club. Within a couple weeks he became a Wachesaw member himself through an affordable membership for players under 30 that is part of a youth movement at the course.
In his first three years as a pro, McDonald played and practiced at public courses. “To be able to have these facilities here has really been huge for me and I’ve been able to take my game to the next level,” McDonald said.
Golf has been McDonald’s only profession since moving to the Strand, so he has had to rely on his game to pay his bills. That didn’t work out so well last year. He had solid results on the eGolf Tour based in Charlotte, N.C., making 11 of 13 cuts with a number of top-10 and top-25 finishes. But unless you’re winning events on most mini-tours, it’s difficult to make a profit.
McDonald’s parents – his father, Rick, is a 45-year carrier for the U.S. Postal Service who played college golf and his mother, Cindy, is in real estate sales – set up a $15,000 account to assist him with his adult pursuits. “I quickly went through that,” he said.
McDonald has had more success in 2014, winning the money and points titles this spring on the Hilton Head Island-based Hurricane Pro Golf Tour.
More importantly, McDonald’s play caught the attention of Todd Brown, the tour’s executive director and the executive vice president of Brown Golf Management, who has since become his agent/manager.
Brown introduced McDonald to a Pennsylvania man who is paying all golf-related travel expenses for the remainder of 2014 for both McDonald and Miyares, with an additional four years of sponsor options. Brown said the man has never previously sponsored a golfer.
“We believe in him,” said Brown, who once played mini-tour golf. “He has an enormous amount of talent. I just haven’t seen anyone who had all the tools that Ricky does that wasn’t already on the PGA Tour.
“It will be nice to see him go with no pressure and see how well he can do.”
The sponsorship was contingent upon McDonald playing well at the April 15-18 PGA Tour Canada qualifying tournament, and he handled the pressure. “Going into tournament week I had the right mindset, I had a very positive outlook on the week,” McDonald said.
McDonald, who plays Ping irons, has also recently secured deals with Titleist and FootJoy for shoes, balls and gloves. In the past week, Brown has helped him receive additional sponsor funding from a bank in Minnesota. “I didn’t know I could help him as much as we did, but he’s not complaining,” Brown said. “He’s gone from doing it all on his own to not having to worry about it.”
McDonald, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound lefthander, isn’t one of the game’s longer hitters and has generally relied a lot on his ball-striking, wedge game, short game and putting. But through golf-specific exercises he has gained about 20 yards with his driver in the past few months, extending to about 285 yards off the tee. He wants to add another 15 yards and believes it’s attainable.
“The future is looking bright right now, which is awesome,” McDonald said. “I just have to keep working harder than ever to keep the dream alive.”