He takes the watermelon on a stick he calls a driver and addresses the ball, which is teed so high its bottom is almost above the club.
Just like he’ll do some 30 times today and Friday in the Calhoun County golf tournament, the Alexandria sophomore taps the ground with his trusty Taylor Made R11 and waggles the head.
Another tap. Another waggle.
Another tap. Another waggle.
He finally draws back the club like a contortionist in one fluid motion around his limber, lanky 6-foot frame nearly pointing it back at the ground. With barely a pause, he retraces the motion, ending with a muted metallic ping sending the ball screaming forward.
And forward it goes and goes and goes. On the fly it disappears into the stand of trees at the end of Pine Hill Country Club’s driving range, a distance club pro Cory Etter puts at 290 yards.
“He’s the longest player in the county,” Etter said. And not just high school players, “… that’s all of them.”
Sure McNeal’s scorched spheres on a recent Tuesday came on the driving range but it might as well had been on the course. No matter the time or situation, he swings the same way all the time … just like his hero, Bubba Watson.
Come high scores or high water, he never backs off.
“Doesn’t matter,” McNeal said, “every hole I’m trying to make a birdie.”
There are plenty of similarities between the recently minted Masters winner Watson and last year’s Calhoun County tournament runner-up McNeal. Both are lefties, both self-described country boys and both like their hair like they like their drives — long and sometimes all over the place.
After a near miss in the 2010 PGA Championship, Watson won his first major less than a week ago at Augusta National. After finishing second last season to Oxford’s Adam Sanders (now at Belmont University), McNeal goes after his first Calhoun County tournament title today at Pine Hill.
He’ll be the first to tell you — as will many others — he can’t win the tournament with his driver, but he can sure lose it.
“I’m going to have to chip better,” he said. “I’ll drive the ball up there and still have to chip and putt … (a round) can go from 5-under to 5-over.”
Whether that comes today or Saturday or it doesn’t, he’s still got two more years to go — he’s only 16.
That’s pretty good considering not that long ago, golf wasn’t at all the way he saw his athletic life going.
In sixth grade, McNeal broke a growth plate in his pitching arm throwing the ball. With a propensity for power even then, he said once the cast came off, any magic he had was gone and so was his interest. He picked up a golf club lying around at a friend’s house and soon discovered the power that helped to make him a good pitcher made him a long golfer, too.
Even though others picked up the sport earlier, McNeal said he’s always been one of the longer hitters for his age. This past summer he proved to be one of the better players, too. On the Dixie PGA Juniors summer tour, he was no worse than a tie for fourth in five events in his age group. That stand included two wins and a runner-up.
Sometime in that past two years, he said he’s achieved the distance that puts him on par with the big boys. But with the big boys, he’s learning the other parts of the game — hitting it long isn’t as important as hitting it close.
“He’s got all the talent in the world,” said Jeremy McGatha, the reigning Calhoun County Golf Tour Player of the Year. “He’s just got to harness it.”
McNeal said at Pine Hill he can drive seven of the course’s par 4s. No. 10 and No. 17 (280 and 250 yards on the scorecard) he does with a hybrid and an iron, respectively. If his chipping is on — and he’s that close — the tournament could play right into his hands.
“We’re not going to set up the course super hard,” Etter said.
“I’d rather the kids come out here and shoot a good score, be proud of themselves and have something to tell their parents than to be discouraged.”
But McNeal seldom gets discouraged — even when his tee shots go drastically awry. Just like Watson, if he’s got a swing, he’s got a shot.
“I was 160 yards out the fairway the other day,” he said. “I made par.”
Bran Strickland is the assistant managing editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3590 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.