For three years as a business student in Coastal Carolina’s PGA Golf Management program, Morgan Deneen admired from afar the members of the school’s men’s golf team.
He didn’t necessarily admire their golf games. He admired their positions on the team.
He checked CCU’s individual scoring averages after nearly every tournament from his freshman through his junior year, the data fortifying his belief that he belonged.
But he was never given the chance.
That changed after Jim Garren was named the new CCU coach last July.
Inheriting just five players, Garren needed bodies – preferably who could also play – and asked PGM program director Will Mann and other program administrators if they had anyone among the PGM’s 250 enrollees capable of playing Division I golf.
They suggested a pair of seniors in Deneen and Andrew Roy.
Boy, were they right.
While Roy has produced for the team with a 74.4 scoring average, one top 10 in five events and low round of 68, Deneen has become a breakout star.
In competition, Deneen has posted a pair of 66s that rank among the top 10 best rounds in school history, is second in scoring average on the team to junior Luis Ruiz by less than 0.3 shots per round at 72.11, and has two top 10s and a top 20 in six events.
“He’s tremendous,” Garren said. “You’re looking at a kid who has a realistic chance of being an all-conference player, kid who has a chance to go out and win, kid who has a chance to take us to the postseason, and he was just here."
Deneen has eight rounds of par or better in 18 this season, and ranks third on the school’s single-season list for par-5 scoring at 4.65, trailing only former All-Americans Dustin Johnson (4.5343) and Sebastian Soderberg (4.5969).
“You’re talking about a guy we literally can count on every single round,” Garren said. “Not only that, he can go out and shoot under par and he’s not scared to go shoot low numbers, and at our level a lot of guys are.
“You’re going from a guy you just needed a body to help push people to a legitimate important part of your lineup that you can’t win without him. That’s how important he is.”
Deneen, who is in the starting lineup for the Chants in this weekend’s 17th annual Hackler Championship at The Dunes Golf and Beach Club, doesn’t plan to let the long-coveted opportunity end after this season.
He is applying to enter CCU’s business graduate school and plans to take advantage of another year of eligibility to play college golf in 2018-19 before embarking on a pro career.
“I just want to keep playing,” Deneen said. “It’s happened quick, I haven’t reflected on it too much. I still see myself as new. . . . Definitely when I get to tournaments it’s still eye-opening, just the quality of the field versus what I’ve been playing in. It’s nice to see, that’s for sure.”
Deneen said he was a good player as a junior in high school in Newport Beach, Calif., though his swing was “ghastly. I played well, but the swing was not pretty,” he said.
He largely built his own swing with a couple lessons per year, then attended Idaho golf coach John Means’ camp before his senior season and revamped his swing over five days through an instructor who lived an hour from his home, allowing the instruction to continue. “My senior year was the first time I thought I was at a level I could play D1 golf, but it was too late to get recruited,” Deneen said.
He said he approached the college recruiting process the wrong way. He had an older brother who played baseball at Naval Academy, and he expected the recruiting process in golf to be similar to what it was in baseball, with high school results being highly regarded. But it wasn’t. College coaches often look to junior and amateur events to find their talent.
“I didn’t play in a single world amateur golf ranking tournament as a junior, I just played local junior events and nothing too spectacular, and you can’t just take high school scores for college golf,” Deneen said. “It was just really a lack of getting my name in front of people.”
He said he had a couple coaches invite him to try out as a walk-on and had a couple small college offers, but nothing that enticed him. He wanted to pursue a career in the business of golf, so he looked at PGM programs. “It’s a great way to go, and what really appealed to me was the 100 percent job placement rate out of every PGM program, so that satisfied my parents’ wants and it looked good to me,” Deneen said.
There are 19 PGA-accredited PGM programs in the nation and Deneen wanted a change of scenery. He reached out to Mann, a past PGA of America president, to inquire about the program, and Mann happened to be in California at the time and invited Deneen to meet him at the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, where they spent a couple hours.
“I thought that was really cool as my first impression of him,” Deneen said. “Being a past PGA president, I figured I could grow some network off of that. And [Coastal] is by the beach so I can’t complain. I wanted to keep up the beach lifestyle.”
Getting his shot
Deneen met some golf team members as a freshman and practiced and played recreationally with them occasionally, and he felt his game matched theirs. “That’s when I knew I had it, but just didn’t get an opportunity,” Deneen said. “In my mind I belonged on the team.”
He was a dominant player in PGM program events, leading the CCU points competition for the past couple years and finishing at or near the top of local, regional and national tournaments including the Jones Cup, Directors Cup and Carolinas Cup.
Deneen said he approached and contacted former golf coach Kevin McPherson about a walk-on opportunity but wasn’t extended one. “If you spend time recruiting these kids you’re going to want to give them the opportunities, and I understand that, I’m just happy I got mine,” Deneen said.
Deneen entered a couple amateur events last summer, largely to prepare himself for a go at a pro career after college, and finished second at the Monterrey City Amateur, which featured more than 100 players including many from colleges in the Pac-12 Conference.
That reinforced Deneen’s belief in his game. “If I’m beating top 50, top 30 teams and their kids at this tournament, then I think I belong somewhere,” he said.
The Monterrey result was what most impressed Garren. “He played in one tournament this summer that I could find and beat a bunch of Pac-12 kids, so at that point I’m going, ‘This guy, for what we need, definitely can help us,’ ” Garren said.
Deneen has been working on his game with CCU PGM program director of player development Matt Roberts over the past three years, and it has turned his driving into a strength. “He’s the best driver of the golf ball we’ve got. He hits it long and hits it straight,” Garren said.
CCU assistant Jeremy Alcorn has also contributed this season, assisting Deneen largely with his short game, primarily high-lofted wedges, which have been a weakness.
There are still areas of his game and round management to work on. “He’s got a long way to go,” Garren said. “That’s the beautiful thing about him is I think we get him back for a fifth year next year, and as good as he is he’s still raw.”
And for what he’s already accomplished, Deneen is seemingly getting better and more comfortable playing against Division I competition as the season progresses.
Garren believes Coastal has a shot to win the Sun Belt Conference tournament and earn an NCAA regional berth, chances he says the Chants don’t have without Deneen. “We’re nowhere close without this guy. Nowhere,” he said.