By its very nature, golf is a game that challenges the mind as much as the body.
Sure, there’s plenty of physical skill involved in a good golf swing. Everything works in unison: hands, wrists, shoulders, torso, legs – all flowing through a synchronized, graceful movement.
But every great shot is born from the player’s imagination. The shot is pictured in the mind’s eye in vivid detail, myriad calculations made before swinging the club.
It’s a game that suits UNC Greensboro’s Nick Lyerly to a tee.
Lyerly is a soft-spoken, cerebral, slim, 5-foot-11 young man from nearby Salisbury, who happens to be a giant in amateur golf.
He has climbed as high as No. 47 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He’s qualified for three NCAA Tournaments – twice with his UNCG team, and this year as an individual – and is the first Spartan to win Southern Conference Player of the Year honors. He led the SoCon with a 69.63 scoring average this season.
Lyerly has done all of that while crushing it in the classroom. He’s already earned his bachelor’s degree in Biology, and he’s a straight-A student on course to earn his master’s degree in Exercise Physiology next May.
“Just look at what Nick has done,” UNCG golf coach Terrance Stewart says. “From all the wins, to SoCon Player of the year, to a 4.0 grade point average. And he’s a great teammate. … He’s a true student-athlete who represents the best of what college athletics is about.”
And he has another year of eligibility remaining.
“This was a good year for our team,” Lyerly says. “We had two back-to-back wins to start the spring semester, and some other good finishes. And we played well in the conference, just couldn’t quite catch ETSU this time. But our guys played well, and we weren’t too far away from getting an at-large bid. Next year, we have the potential to get back to the NCAA Tournament. It was a great year, a fun year, and I’m looking forward to one more.”
UNDER THE RADAR
This year is a tough act to follow.
Lyerly racked up six individual top-5 finishes, including tournament victories at the Phoenix Invitational in Burlington, the Wolfpack Intercollegiate in Raleigh, the Dorado Beach Collegiate in Puerto Rico, and the Grandover Collegiate here in Greensboro.
He was among 30 golfers on the watch list for the Ben Hogan Award honoring the nation’s top NCAA Division I player. That’s a big deal. Lyerly and North Florida’s Nick Gabrelcik were the only two players on that list from schools outside the Power Five conferences that dominate college athletics.
But Lyerly, who won a high school state championship in 2015 as a junior at East Rowan, didn’t draw a lot of recruiting interest from college golf’s elite programs.
He chose his own path, and he flew under their radar.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t play any AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) tournaments,” Lyerly says. “Those AJGA events are almost like a national junior tour. A lot of the big-time colleges look at those tournaments when they’re recruiting, especially the out-of-state colleges.”
The truth is, Lyerly probably would’ve chosen UNCG anyway. The Spartans golf program is a proven winner, and the university checked all the boxes on his list: an affordable, quality education on a pretty campus not far from home.
“I liked that all the guys on the team are from North Carolina,” Lyerly says. “I knew most of them already just from playing high school golf and junior tournaments in the summertime. We grew up playing at a lot of the same golf courses. UNCG was far enough from home so that I was still out on my own, but it was close enough to home that I could get back there easily.”
Lyerly already had a track record of success before arriving at UNCG.
He’s still the youngest player to ever win the Carolinas Golf Association’s N.C. Amateur Championship tournament. Lyerly was just 17 years old and in high school when he beat then-Guilford College golf coach Justin Tereshko by one shot.
“I always knew I wanted to play college golf, but I never won a big event,” Lyerly says. “I played a lot of CGA junior tournaments, and I finished in second place a lot. So I didn’t go into the N.C. Amateur expecting to win. I just wanted to see what I could do against guys of all ages. Winning that definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”
At UNCG, Lyerly has found success by figuring out how to balance course work with work on the course.
It’s not easy. But it’s a priority for Lyerly and his inquisitive mind.
“We miss a good bit of class time, especially in the spring semester,” Lyerly says. “I had to keep track of labs and classes and all that stuff. But as long as I gave my professors plenty of notice ahead of time – ‘Hey, I’m going to miss this day; I’m going to miss this lab; I’m going to miss this exam.’ – they were great working with me to make sure it all got done. And it’s been the same for graduate school.”
Lyerly stepped away from the golf team for a year during the height of the global coronavirus pandemic. Lyerly thrives in a classroom setting, but distance learning demanded more of his focus to achieve the same amount of success.
He managed. And the break helped him hone his game.
“It was strange having everything just come to a stop like that,” Lyerly says. “I went home, and I didn’t play a tournament for three months. But I practiced hard on my own. So it ended up being a nice little break, almost like hitting the reset button. When I started playing tournaments again, I could tell my game was better, like I’d taken a step forward just from having that break. I can’t explain why. But it worked out for the best: I got a couple more years of college golf, and my game improved.”
Lyerly doesn’t hit the ball particularly long off the tee, but he relies on accuracy, ball-striking with his irons, a killer short game around the greens – and a clever mind that envisions shots before he makes them.
And, he says, his game has improved because of his friends on the golf team. They’re together on and off the course, and he’s shared dorm rooms and apartments with teammates in all his time at UNCG. They rely on each other. They make each other better.
“I like the team aspect of college golf,” Lyerly says. “It’s not like other team sports, because you’re still out there playing golf by yourself. But it’s different, because you’re also playing for the other guys. You don’t want to do anything stupid on the golf course, because it doesn’t just hurt your score, it hurts your team as well. You don’t want to let anyone down.”
That camaraderie is a big part of why Nick Lyerly – the SoCon’s best golfer – is eager to return for one more season, one more chase for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications
Photos by Brian Tirpak, UNCG Athletics