Back to his roots
Conley coaches Methodist squad in hometown return
DESTIN, Fla. -- Methodist men’s golf head coach Steve Conley knows his way around the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort better than most spectators can imagine.
That’s because he knew his way around the land from which it sprang, well before Sandestin existed. A native of Destin, Fla., Conley is thrilled to be on his hometown turf for this week’s NCAA Division III Men’s Golf Championships.
“I just love the area, growing up here,” Conley said. “Obviously a lot of people do since it’s a big-time vacation destination. It’s a beautiful place. The beaches are obviously beautiful and the courses are super and Sandestin’s treated everyone so nicely. I’m excited about it.”
He’ll be more excited if Methodist tops Friday’s final leaderboard. The Monarchs began Thursday’s third-round play, third in the standings, four strokes behind second-place Transylvania and nine strokes behind leader UT-Tyler. Mike Wesko was sixth in individual competition.
Third-place finishers a year ago, the Monarchs last won a DIII title in 2010, which ended a 10-year drought. They had won nine NCAA DIII titles from 1990-99, a 10-year span interrupted only by UC San Diego’s victory in 1993.
Now in his 26th season at Methodist, Conley directed all 10 of those championship campaigns. And, he knew what his players would face this week on Sandestin’s Links and Raven courses; the initial 41-team men’s field played one round on each course. After Wednesday’s cut, the top 15 teams play remaining rounds on Raven.
“We played solid [Tuesday], I thought for the first round, and the Links is much tighter than the Raven,” Conley said. “Not to take anything away from the Raven, it’s just way more tight at the Links, just two different golf courses. I thought we got off to a decent start. That’s what you want to do. You want to get yourself started, not get behind and keep building on it.”
A graduate of Fort Walton Beach High School, Conley went on to play collegiately at Murray State. As a kid growing up in what was then a fishing village, he majored in sand, sea and piney woods.
“When we were living in Destin, there were maybe three or four restaurants, a couple of gas stations, one grocery store and an ice house and the charter boats,” Conley said. “And that was it.”
His family lived on Buck Bayou, around the corner from what is now Sandestin’s marina and he remembers the Burnt Pine members-only club and the Raven as coastal forest.
“I’ve been in that water so many times I can’t even count,” Conley said
His father, Jim, who lives in nearby Niceville, was Sandestin’s long-time director of security. Between high school and summer tournaments as a teenager, Conley snared his first golf job at Sandestin.
“I just needed some spending money and I was running carts, as we call it,” he said.
He is far more influential now, as an accomplished coach and PGA professional. Methodist is the host school for this week’s men’s and women’s DIII tournaments. When the NCAA asked Methodist to do so -- the school hosted both 2009 tournaments at Port St. Lucie, Fla. -- Conley helped with the matchmaking between Sandestin director of golf, Rick Hileman, and the NCAA.
“I thought, ‘You know what? I bet Sandestin would like to have it,’” he said.
But his knowledge of Sandestin’s courses is of limited value to his players.
“There’s some [value],” he said. “Obviously I’m familiar with Bermuda grass since I grew up on it. And I know the layouts fairly well so that never hurts. But these guys are good players. They pick up stuff pretty quickly and having them play here in the fall didn’t hurt.”
The Monarchs finished fourth out of last October’s 14-team, Golf Week Fall Preview field; many, the same DIII challengers here this week. That tournament was another likely plus for Sandestin when the site was under NCAA consideration.
Golf Week also sponsored a DIII Women’s Fall Preview for the first time last year on its Baytowne course -- again a product of Conley’s matchmaking -- while the men played Raven, site of Conley’s current, favorite hometown hole.
Conley scored his second career hole-in-one at Raven No. 4 in Sandestin last summer.
“I can get around,” he said with a laugh; he shot a 1-under-par 70 that day.
He also serves as an assistant professor at Methodist, directs the school’s PGA Golf Management Program and is the Golf Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame’s youngest inductee, at age 44 in 2007.
But aside from title hopes, Conley is proudest of his hometown this week.
“These guys get a chance to experience playing for a national championship and also get to spend a week at a really neat place,” he said. “I think it’s a win-win all the way around. Hopefully we play well and that makes it even more special.”