Golf

Irving teenager walks in Jordan Spieth’s footsteps at Nelson

Austin Connelly, right, of Irving, gets a pat on the chest from his mother, Bridget, on Thursday at the AT&T Byron Nelson in Irving. Connelly, 18, shot a 1-under-par 69 in fulfilling a dream to play in the Nelson as an amateur.
Austin Connelly, right, of Irving, gets a pat on the chest from his mother, Bridget, on Thursday at the AT&T Byron Nelson in Irving. Connelly, 18, shot a 1-under-par 69 in fulfilling a dream to play in the Nelson as an amateur. Star-Telegram

For as long as he can remember, 18-year-old Austin Connelly perched during the AT&T Byron Nelson on the back porch of Rocco and Judy Macri’s house that sits in the middle of the 17th fairway of TPC Four Season Las Colinas.

The young Irving resident vividly remembers seeing 16-year-old Jordan Spieth walk down that very fairway in 2010, playing the tournament as an amateur, and was inspired to do the same thing.

On Thursday, Connelly’s dream was realized as he finished the first round in a tie for 37th place with a 1-under 69 in the tournament that grew his love for the sport.

“It was very neat,” Connelly said. “It kind of felt like I expected. I watched Jordan do it a few years ago and I really enjoy that atmosphere. The crowds and everything, I really relished ever second of it.”

Connelly had idolized tournament namesake Byron Nelson since he was a small child, when he watched Nelson hit on the driving range of TPC Las Colinas. He had the chance to chat with the golfing legend, who died in 2006, on a few occasions and was even called over during one of Nelson’s clinics to demonstrate a good golf swing.

“He’s such an incredible man — what he stood for and how he treated people,” Connelly said. “The only other person I can think that treated people in that way is Arnold Palmer. He’s really just a class act and just a great person.”

Connelly stands third in the American Junior Golf Association rankings and second in Golfweek’s boys junior rankings, but he wasn’t a lock for an exemption into his favorite tournament.

During the holiday season, he was informed he wouldn’t be that high school phenom to try his luck in the local PGA event as Spieth had done.

Connelly wrote a heartfelt letter to tournament director Jon Drago, expressing how much it would mean to him to be that lucky amateur and if playing in the Nelson wasn’t in his cards, it would be a rare opportunity that got away.

On Monday, Connelly was in Calgary, Alberta, participating in a media day for the Canadian national team, for which he plays by having dual citizenship.

He received an urgent call from his coach saying he needed to hop on a plane and would be getting a call from Drago soon.

With 11 players canceling their commitment to the tournament this week, a spot opened up for Connelly, which he found out via a FaceTime audio call from Drago while on the plane.

“He grew up here at this club his whole life,” Connelly’s mother, Bridget, said “Since he was literally in diapers he would come out here and putt and chip. It’s really special.”

Connelly maintained a 2-under score through the front nine Thursday, but faltered midway through the back nine, recording bogeys on 14 and 15.

On 18, standing at even par for the day, Connelly hit a 182-yard second shot from the rough on the right of the fairway that rolled 2 feet from the hole. He made the birdie putt to sneak under par for the round.

Spieth, the Dallas resident and Masters champion, finished with the same score Thursday.

Connelly hopes to stay in contention to mark his weekend as a success.

“I really want to use this time to really see what it feels like to be in the heat of battle and just turn this into a big learning experience,” he said. “If I can get into contention and keep playing smart, I think this could be a really big week for me.”

It’s a different week, for sure. It’s one of the first he’s not sitting on the Macris’ porch, eating homemade wood-fire pizzas and watching his favorite pros walk the fairway of 17 during the Nelson.

But he would trade a hot slice any day for that experience Thursday, looking back at his cheering friends who lined the patio fence, pointing up at the giant banner that hung from the balcony with his name and a heart displayed boldly.

“I’ve had many thrills in my lifetime, but watching a young man from the age of 4, now 18, go through all the steps to be a great golfer is just amazing,” Rocco Macri said. “He’s just an excellent man, and we love that family so much and everything that is happening to them, they deserve.”

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