Lecture halls and a pair of exams awaited Payne McLeod on the UNC Wilmington campus. On this late-September school day, though, McLeod soaked up the scenery from the ferry deck.
The Hilton Head lighthouse looming over Harbour Town Golf Links. Dolphins frolicking in the distance. A golf course teeming with some of the nation’s top collegiate players.
“It really is awesome. Sometimes you take it for granted,” McLeod said. “It’s just a great experience for all of us to be able to play golf. You have good days and bad days, but when you look back at it we’re just so lucky. I feel very fortunate to be able to do these things.”
The good days have far outnumbered the bad for McLeod during his Seahawks career. The Reidsville native sparkled in his very first college tournament, won the Colonial Athletic Association championship and was named CAA Player of the Year as a junior, and appears on his way to rewriting the UNCW record book this fall and spring.
“I can’t believe it’s my senior year,” McLeod said. “I was telling my teammates last week that my first tournament in Maryland feels like a few months ago. It just flies.”
McLeod was brimming with confidence before the Maryland Intercollegiate in 2010. That summer, he captured the North Carolina Match Play Championship, a breakout victory after a junior golf career that McLeod summed up by saying, “I wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t good.”
The Reidsville High School product certainly was good enough to capture the attention of numerous college coaches. In 2009, he placed second in the N.C. Junior and the Big I state championship, then landed 13th in the national Big I.
Wilmington coach Matt Clark remembered seeing McLeod for the first time at Mid Pines in Pinehurst for the Big I state qualifier. And for all of McLeod’s laudable qualities on the course, what stood out the most to Clark was an ability to control his swing speed in the wedge game.
“Most of us just have one speed,” Clark explained. “I thought his ability to control his swing speed in competitive play was something that would pay dividends on the next level.”
Clark and McLeod met up after that round. And for all of UNCW’s laudable qualities, what stood out the most to McLeod was the simplest of notions.
“He was so nice – by far the nicest coach I had talked with,” McLeod said. “When you go off to college, it’s nice knowing you have someone to talk to and you know they’ll be there for you. I felt he would do anything for me.”
McLeod and UNCW were a perfect match from the start. At his first college tournament – the Maryland Intercollegiate – McLeod finished 1-under (70-70-72) and tied for seventh in the field of 64. That set the stage for a remarkable freshman year. McLeod carded five top-10 finishes, placed eighth at the NCAA Regional, and earned both CAA Rookie of the Year and first-team All-CAA accolades.
As good as that freshman season was for McLeod, someone else on the roster was better. Josh Brock was the CAA Player of the Year in 2011, finishing with a scoring average of 72.0 to McLeod’s 73.0. As a sophomore, McLeod tied for the team’s best stroke average – 73.2 – but watched Thomas Bass win the conference’s top honors.
That kind of competition among his own teammates helps explain why McLeod never suffered a sophomore slump or junior jinx.
“Payne‘s always had players on the team who have pushed him,” Clark said. “Even though he’d had good years, he wasn’t the No. 1 man. He had to keep developing to get to where he is now. Last year, all his hard work paid off.”
McLeod compared his situation on the loaded Seahawks roster to PGA star Phil Mickelson always seeking out practice rounds with the younger up-and-coming Tour stars.
“That’s his competition, to outwork them,” McLeod said. “It definitely helped to have that on my team every day at practice. You see them play and think, ‘If I can beat them, I’m doing the right things; If they beat me, I need to work on some things.’ In the end, you need to work on your own things. Do the best you can and worry about the rest of the field later.”
Admittedly, McLeod entered his junior season with a little extra motivation. That sophomore year, he actually owned a five-shot lead on Bass entering the final round of the conference tournament. Bass shot a 69 in that round.
McLeod carded a 75.
“That left a bad taste in my mouth,” said McLeod, who then added with a laugh: “I think I outplayed him by a good bit last year.”
No shame in that. McLeod outplayed just about everyone last year. His first-ever tournament win came at the Seahawk Invitational. A month later he won the CAA Championship on the strength of a second-round 67. McLeod’s 72.7 stroke average earned him CAA Player of the Year honors, a spot on the Ping All-East Region team, and loads of confidence entering his final campaign.
McLeod entered this season as UNCW’s all-time leader with a 72.95 stroke average – for his career he has carded just three rounds in the 80s. He would like to win a few more individual tournaments and defend his CAA crown while helping his team win another title and finally make it past the NCAA Tournament regionals.
“I just want to have a good senior year,” McLeod said. “I’ve had a really good career at Wilmington and it’s been awesome.”
In his spare time, McLeod managed to become an academic All-American while pursuing his finance degree. When it comes to future plans, McLeod laughed about his true major being “golf finance.”
No doubt, a business background would come in handy for a professional golfer. McLeod said he does plan to turn pro, likely starting on the eGolf Professional Tour and then attempting to gain Web.com status through the PGA Tour’s new Qualifying School format. He plans to talk about the future with his parents and coach in the coming months because “it’ll come really fast, just as these three, four years have flown by.”
McLeod isn’t big at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, but size and power aren’t everything on the golf course. McLeod’s demeanor and unflinching consistency make him the perfect candidate for success in the pro game.
“A goal for us is can our team – including myself –resemble Payne McLeod’s temperament?” Clark said. “He is laidback, easy going, not too hot, not too cold. As much as I’ve tried to help Payne, he’s helped me and our program just as much.
“He started his career with a bang and it hasn’t stopped,” Clark added. “He’s just continuing to mature to where he can play any course in the country and he’s really consistent every week. It’s just fun when you get a chance to watch a player like Payne have that success. That’s the fun part of being a coach.”