Orillia’s Joe MacNeil is making a name for himself south of the border, playing golf against some of the planet’s top golfers in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
When he was 11 years old, MacNeil started golfing under the tutelage of teaching professional Terry Smith at Barrie Country Club and, later, Hawk Ridge Golf Club.
Smith said, from the youngster’s first swings, he knew MacNeil was going to be a star.
“He was always a natural talent. I could see it right away,” Smith said.
“If he had an interest in the game he was going to have some opportunities to do some big things.”
MacNeil didn’t only have an interest in the game, but it became his love and passion very early on.
After just one year of honing his skills with Smith, MacNeil began participating in local competitions such as the Pepsi Future Tour and the Bay Area Golf Series.
“I started to become competitive with golf and wanted to keep practising. I developed a drive from that point on to try and keep getting better and better,” MacNeil said.
MacNeil dominated the local circuit. In 2016 he won four of the six Pepsi Future events and finished in the top 50 at the under-19 Canadian Junior Championships.
MacNeil, a graduate of Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School, attributes his early success to his coach who initially taught him the game and the course that became his classroom.
“Terry (Smith) was very influential in showing me how to practise my short and long game. He showed me the ins and outs of golf, and Hawk Ridge was a great place for me to develop my game. They have an awesome facility there,” said MacNeil.
MacNeil’s winning ways on the local tours meant a promising future.
To try and elevate his game to the next level, MacNeil began training with PGA of Canada golf coach Jeff Overholt, who connected the young star with NCAA coaches looking for fresh talent.
After discussions with multiple NCAA schools, MacNeil decided to take his talents to Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, a Division II school that offered him a scholarship to play on their team.
“It’s been a great experience. It’s a different atmosphere than what I was used to, and it’s a lot more competitive," MacNeil said.
"I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of trying to take my game to the next level."
As MacNeil adapted to the tougher competition and high-pressue atmosphere quickly, during his rookie season he would finish tied for 28th at the NCAA Championship, and was the highest-ranked golfer at Lindenwood.
In his second year, the 19-year-old took his game to another level, winning the Kentucky Wesleyan Fall Invitational, shooting a two-round 133, 11 under par. MacNeil was named Great Lakes Valley Conference Player of the Week which was the first time ever a Lindenwood player had earned the honour in men’s golf.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MacNeil's breakout sophomore season was abruptly brought to an end.
MacNeil will get back a year of eligibility to play at Lindenwood where he plans on staying for the next three years of his career. Once MacNeil completes his three years of university, he will have to decide if he wants to pursue playing golf at a professional level.
“That’s what I’m working towards right now. It’s a good goal to have in the front of my mind,” he said.
MacNeil knows the road ahead for him is going to present difficult challenges and stiff competition.
“It’s going to take constant work to try and get better every day, and not lose sight of my goal. I have the resources to turn pro and really test my game against the best players,” he said.
MacNeil’s first coach also believes that the sky’s the limit for the talented young athlete.
“He can take it as far as he wants to. He’s definitely got the skills,” Terry Smith says.