Straight Up Sports

Bob Gillespie

Dean Livington – (864) 527 5990

1950 Augusta Street

Greenville, SC 29650

 

Clemson golf icon Penley says Tigers in good shape for future

For 38 seasons, Larry Penley went by “coach” as he ran a Clemson golf program consistently ranked among the nation’s best. A pretty casual guy, he also answered to “Larry” or, to players and friends, “LP.”

Since retiring in 2021, Penley now enjoys another moniker: “Pa-Paw.”

“That’s P-A, P-A-W,” the 65-year-old native of Dallas, N.C., said with a laugh. This past week, he was encamped at Oak Island, N.C., sharing three houses with 35 relatives including six grandchildren, two of whom, no surprise, are already into golf … sort of.

“Mostly softball now,” Penley said of his 9-year-old grandson and 8-year-old granddaughter. “It’s too early to get them serious about golf. Heck, I didn’t take it up until I was 13, so there’s no hurry.”

After more than four decades at Clemson as a player and coach, he’s enjoying a relatively open calendar. That doesn’t mean Penley isn’t still invested in the Tigers’ golf fortunes, though; far from it. It’s just that recently, any concerns he might’ve had about his legacy have been largely satisfied.

When Penley stepped down after the 2020-21 season – one in which his team captured his 10th Atlantic Coast Conference title – he handed off the reins to 16-year assistant coach Jordan Byrd, the brother of Jonathan Byrd, one of Penley’s 42 All-ACC players. Jordan Byrd’s first two teams, though, under-performed by Clemson standards, posting consecutive ninth-place finishes in the ACC Tournament and failing to advance to the NCAA Tournament finale. Even Penley, who says “I wasn’t going to retire until I knew (Byrd) had the job,” wondered how long it would take the program to get back up to speed.

Larry Penley

Clemson University’s Jordan Byrd

 

 

    He wonders no more. On May 15, the Tigers – seeded 11th in a 13-team NCAA regional in Chapel Hill, N.C. – captured their first regional title in 20 years, the program’s eighth (Penley won the first seven, the last in 2004), with a one-shot victory over East Tennessee State. It was the first time a double-digit seed had won a regional since the NCAA initiated its current playoffs format in 2009.

    “Jordan was disappointed in the way we’d played at times this year,” Penley said. “When I talked to him, he said, ‘We know we’re better, and sooner or later we’ll be tired of getting our butts beat.’”

    Penley and Byrd both give credit to Clemson basketball coach Brad Brownell, who spoke with the golf team before the regional. “He told them they had a chance to play for the national championship, and they’re better” than what they’d shown. “I’m so proud that they responded,” Penley said.

    Byrd concurred. “Coach Brownell knows golf, and he related to our team,” he said after the regional. “He talked about having confidence and having a belief that you can succeed. I believe he had a positive impact.”

    The regional’s momentum didn’t carry over to the NCAA Championship – the Tigers finished 22nd out of 30 teams and failed to make the match-play portion of the tournament – but Penley saw that finish as a win. “Twenty-second in the country is not a bad year,” he said. In fact, Clemson, led by junior Andrew Swanson’s 2-under 70 in the final round, finished ahead of five teams ranked above them entering the nationals.

    Penley always felt he’d left “his” program in good hands, but he knew – as when any iconic coach departs – that his successor would have to establish himself while being constantly compared to the past.

    In fact, Penley said that Byrd is better equipped to handle the brave new world of college athletics, with name-image-likeness (NIL) and wide-open transfers via the portal. “He knew more about those NCAA issues than I did. I didn’t want to do any of that; I refused to do the portal. I didn’t really understand the portal.”

    Pre-portal, Penley had only taken two transfers in his 38 seasons. That, in part, was because he’d seen what Division I teams plucking talent from the portal had done to the teams of his former Clemson teammate Michael Carlisle, golf coach at USC Aiken: “They destroyed his team every year,” Penley said, “and that’s wrong in my opinion.”

    Still, times have changed, he acknowledged. “Jordan has some different ideas. If you go the portal route, you’re more sure of what you’re getting” in a player who’s developed elsewhere, as opposed to a freshman. “I wanted to develop them myself,” Penley said. “I was picky who I took.”

    Let the record show that he knew what he was doing. Besides their NCAA national championship in 2003, his teams had top-20 finishes 25 times, including a tie for eighth in 2019 and a T-13 in 2021, Penley’s final season. From 1997 through the 2003 national title season, Clemson had seven top-10 finishes and five top-threes.

    Penley’s influence can also be seen in the success of Clemson’s women’s team, which in this just-completed season had its best record in program history. Under coach Kelley Hester, the Tigers tied for second in their NCAA regional, finished fifth in stroke play in the national finals and advanced to match play. Hester, who coached Georgia and Furman before coming to Clemson in 2016, has three straight top-25 NCAA Tournament finishes, the program’s first ACC title in 2023, and was recently named one of four regional coaches of the year for 2023-24 by the Women’s Golf Coaches Association.

    Penley downplays his role in luring Hester to Clemson, but is robust in his praise of the hire. “She’s incredible,” he said. “I’d known her a long time, worked camps with her. She was an easy pick, (and) she’s raising the standards and growing the program every year.” As for his role, “I’ll recuse myself,” he said, laughing, “but others did a good job. I’m very proud to have her here.”

    Penley predicts continued progress for Byrd and the men’s team. “I’m sure he does feel pressure, not wanting to disappoint me or Clemson, but he can never disappoint me. I know everything about him and I’m proud to have him here.

    “He puts pressure on himself. He’s got to figure things out, and he will. He and his players learned a lot this year, and I think they’re headed in the right direction. I’m confident he can get it done.”

    Penley recalled his own feelings when taking over the Tigers program way back in 1983-84. He was succeeding his coach, Bobby Robinson, who’d led Clemson to its first NCAA Tournament in 1980, its first ACC Championship and first NCAA top-five (both in 1983) – and whose name adorns the team’s practice facility.

    “I spent 38 years not disappointing Bobby,” Penley said, laughing. “He started it, told us we could win.” Over the years, he learned what he believes Byrd is now learning: “It takes a lot of hard work, and you’ve got to change the culture where (players) want it as bad as I do. Right now, both (men’s and women’s) teams are showing that.”

    Penley’s home is an easy drive from Clemson’s practice facility, where he can watch the current players working on their games. “I see the girls on the range and it warms my heart (because) I want range rats,” he said. “I do take a lot of pride” in setting an example for both teams.

    That presence is unlikely to change, even with Penley now answering to Pa-Paw. After four decades on the job, some things don’t ever change.

 

Bob Gillespie

 

Bob Gillespie

Dean Livington – (864) 527 5990

1950 Augusta Street

Greenville, SC 29650

 

Clemson golf icon Penley says Tigers in good shape for future

Larry Penley

For 38 seasons, Larry Penley went by “coach” as he ran a Clemson golf program consistently ranked among the nation’s best. A pretty casual guy, he also answered to “Larry” or, to players and friends, “LP.”

Since retiring in 2021, Penley now enjoys another moniker: “Pa-Paw.”

“That’s P-A, P-A-W,” the 65-year-old native of Dallas, N.C., said with a laugh. This past week, he was encamped at Oak Island, N.C., sharing three houses with 35 relatives including six grandchildren, two of whom, no surprise, are already into golf … sort of.

“Mostly softball now,” Penley said of his 9-year-old grandson and 8-year-old granddaughter. “It’s too early to get them serious about golf. Heck, I didn’t take it up until I was 13, so there’s no hurry.”

After more than four decades at Clemson as a player and coach, he’s enjoying a relatively open calendar. That doesn’t mean Penley isn’t still invested in the Tigers’ golf fortunes, though; far from it. It’s just that recently, any concerns he might’ve had about his legacy have been largely satisfied.

When Penley stepped down after the 2020-21 season – one in which his team captured his 10th Atlantic Coast Conference title – he handed off the reins to 16-year assistant coach Jordan Byrd, the brother of Jonathan Byrd, one of Penley’s 42 All-ACC players. Jordan Byrd’s first two teams, though, under-performed by Clemson standards, posting consecutive ninth-place finishes in the ACC Tournament and failing to advance to the NCAA Tournament finale. Even Penley, who says “I wasn’t going to retire until I knew (Byrd) had the job,” wondered how long it would take the program to get back up to speed.

Clemson University’s Jordan Byrd

 

 

He wonders no more. On May 15, the Tigers – seeded 11th in a 13-team NCAA regional in Chapel Hill, N.C. – captured their first regional title in 20 years, the program’s eighth (Penley won the first seven, the last in 2004), with a one-shot victory over East Tennessee State. It was the first time a double-digit seed had won a regional since the NCAA initiated its current playoffs format in 2009.

“Jordan was disappointed in the way we’d played at times this year,” Penley said. “When I talked to him, he said, ‘We know we’re better, and sooner or later we’ll be tired of getting our butts beat.’”

Penley and Byrd both give credit to Clemson basketball coach Brad Brownell, who spoke with the golf team before the regional. “He told them they had a chance to play for the national championship, and they’re better” than what they’d shown. “I’m so proud that they responded,” Penley said.

Byrd concurred. “Coach Brownell knows golf, and he related to our team,” he said after the regional. “He talked about having confidence and having a belief that you can succeed. I believe he had a positive impact.”

The regional’s momentum didn’t carry over to the NCAA Championship – the Tigers finished 22nd out of 30 teams and failed to make the match-play portion of the tournament – but Penley saw that finish as a win. “Twenty-second in the country is not a bad year,” he said. In fact, Clemson, led by junior Andrew Swanson’s 2-under 70 in the final round, finished ahead of five teams ranked above them entering the nationals.

Penley always felt he’d left “his” program in good hands, but he knew – as when any iconic coach departs – that his successor would have to establish himself while being constantly compared to the past.

In fact, Penley said that Byrd is better equipped to handle the brave new world of college athletics, with name-image-likeness (NIL) and wide-open transfers via the portal. “He knew more about those NCAA issues than I did. I didn’t want to do any of that; I refused to do the portal. I didn’t really understand the portal.”

Pre-portal, Penley had only taken two transfers in his 38 seasons. That, in part, was because he’d seen what Division I teams plucking talent from the portal had done to the teams of his former Clemson teammate Michael Carlisle, golf coach at USC Aiken: “They destroyed his team every year,” Penley said, “and that’s wrong in my opinion.”

Still, times have changed, he acknowledged. “Jordan has some different ideas. If you go the portal route, you’re more sure of what you’re getting” in a player who’s developed elsewhere, as opposed to a freshman. “I wanted to develop them myself,” Penley said. “I was picky who I took.”

Let the record show that he knew what he was doing. Besides their NCAA national championship in 2003, his teams had top-20 finishes 25 times, including a tie for eighth in 2019 and a T-13 in 2021, Penley’s final season. From 1997 through the 2003 national title season, Clemson had seven top-10 finishes and five top-threes.

Penley’s influence can also be seen in the success of Clemson’s women’s team, which in this just-completed season had its best record in program history. Under coach Kelley Hester, the Tigers tied for second in their NCAA regional, finished fifth in stroke play in the national finals and advanced to match play. Hester, who coached Georgia and Furman before coming to Clemson in 2016, has three straight top-25 NCAA Tournament finishes, the program’s first ACC title in 2023, and was recently named one of four regional coaches of the year for 2023-24 by the Women’s Golf Coaches Association.

Penley downplays his role in luring Hester to Clemson, but is robust in his praise of the hire. “She’s incredible,” he said. “I’d known her a long time, worked camps with her. She was an easy pick, (and) she’s raising the standards and growing the program every year.” As for his role, “I’ll recuse myself,” he said, laughing, “but others did a good job. I’m very proud to have her here.”

Penley predicts continued progress for Byrd and the men’s team. “I’m sure he does feel pressure, not wanting to disappoint me or Clemson, but he can never disappoint me. I know everything about him and I’m proud to have him here.

“He puts pressure on himself. He’s got to figure things out, and he will. He and his players learned a lot this year, and I think they’re headed in the right direction. I’m confident he can get it done.”

Penley recalled his own feelings when taking over the Tigers program way back in 1983-84. He was succeeding his coach, Bobby Robinson, who’d led Clemson to its first NCAA Tournament in 1980, its first ACC Championship and first NCAA top-five (both in 1983) – and whose name adorns the team’s practice facility.

“I spent 38 years not disappointing Bobby,” Penley said, laughing. “He started it, told us we could win.” Over the years, he learned what he believes Byrd is now learning: “It takes a lot of hard work, and you’ve got to change the culture where (players) want it as bad as I do. Right now, both (men’s and women’s) teams are showing that.”

Penley’s home is an easy drive from Clemson’s practice facility, where he can watch the current players working on their games. “I see the girls on the range and it warms my heart (because) I want range rats,” he said. “I do take a lot of pride” in setting an example for both teams.

That presence is unlikely to change, even with Penley now answering to Pa-Paw. After four decades on the job, some things don’t ever change.

 

Bob Gillespie