April 17, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Darion Atkins knows University of Virginia classmate Denny McCarthy, but not as one of the ACC’s top golfers. In high school, Atkins and McCarthy battled on basketball courts in the D.C. area, where Atkins played for Landon and McCarthy for Georgetown Prep.

McCarthy was a 3-point specialist, a 5-9 guard who would “come down the court and drain them like it was nothing,” Atkins recalled Tuesday. “He could shoot the ball like crazy.”

The 6-8 Atkins was — and is — a high-flying post player with a gift for blocking shots. (He started 12 games for UVa as a sophomore this season before a leg injury sidelined him.) When the Little Hoyas played the Bears, McCarthy said Monday, “I didn’t go inside too much, because I know what he can do when you throw up little floaters in the lane. He would swat those things against the wall so fast.”

In an era when elite athletes often play only one sport in high school, McCarthy was an anomaly. He lettered in basketball as well as golf at Georgetown Prep.

“I didn’t touch clubs for a good three or four months [each year],” McCarthy recalled. “I’d play until the end of October. Once November hit, that’s kind of when I put the clubs away and laced up the basketball shoes for a couple months.”

He knew that many golfers played year-round, but “I didn’t buy into that,” said McCarthy, a resident of Rockville, Md., whose brother, Ryan, played golf for Loyola University in Baltimore.

“I kind of wanted to stay busy and have a good balance for myself. I’ve played basketball just as long as I’ve played golf, ever since I could walk, pretty much, and I love basketball just as much as I love golf.”

His scholarship at UVa is for golf, and that’s unquestionably his athletic focus. Still, McCarthy hasn’t tossed his basketball shoes.

“Every now and then, when I’m around here, I’ll just go to the gym and mess around and shoot around,” he said, smiling. “I still got the shot and still got the touch.”

His best shots, though, come on the golf course. In 2010, McCarthy won the Junior PGA Championship in Fort Wayne, Ind., and helped the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team to a victory over the European squad in Scotland. Also that year, at 17, he won the Maryland Open, becoming the youngest player to capture a tournament that dates to 1921.

Coming out of Georgetown Prep, McCarthy was widely ranked among the top five recruits in the nation’s Class of 2011, and he hasn’t disappointed at UVa. The ACC freshman of the year for 2011-12, McCarthy tied for fourth in the conference tournament last spring.

As a sophomore, he leads the Cavaliers with an average score of 72.42.

McCarthy isn’t as big as many of his peers, “but he’s powerful,” UVa coach Bowen Sargent said. “He hits it a long ways. Really explosive player. Makes a lot of birdies. Great putter. Great chipper. Just a competitor. That’s probably his biggest strength. He just loves to compete.”

McCarthy’s family has strong ties to JMU, where one of his sisters, Cristina, a high school senior, is headed to play lacrosse. UVa is not a perennial power in men’s golf. So how did the Cavaliers land McCarthy?

It helped that he was close with Kyle Stough, whose final season at Virginia was 2009-10. Stough, like McCarthy, plays at Argyle Country Club in Silver Spring, Md., “and so we really had an in through him,” Sargent said.

“But even then he was ranked No. 1 in the country. Every school in the country wanted him. So it was a battle. I think he narrowed it down to Wake Forest, us and UNC.”

UVa “was a really good fit for me,” McCarthy said. “Overall it was just everything I was looking for. Obviously, it’s a great academic school. It’s a really good opportunity to get one of the best educations in the country.

“I have a really good support system with my family, and this is close enough to home where I could go home every now and then if I needed to. It’s a perfect distance away — not too close, but not too far away.

“Then, golf-wise, with Bowen and his staff, I felt like I was coming into a good staff where they would help me as much as they could to improve my game and get it to the next level.”

McCarthy fell in love with the Lew Oehmig short-game practice facility at Birdwood Golf Course, where he spends untold hours. “That’s the part of the game where you make a difference: short game, putting, chipping, wedge game,” he said.

In early September, McCarthy won the first tournament he played in as a UVa sophomore, the Northern Open in Illinois. His other top-10 finish this season came last month at the Hootie @ Bulls Bay Intercollegiate in South Carolina, where he placed seventh.

“I haven’t won much since I’ve been in college,” McCarthy said, “but I’ve put myself in contention a number of times, and I think just gaining the experience from this last year-and-a-half or so has really helped me. I’m always hungry to get a W.”

At last year’s ACC championships, Ben Rusch became the first golfer from UVa to win the title since Pete Arend in 1955, and Rusch and McCarthy were expected to form the nucleus of a strong team this year.

Last summer, however, the NCAA stripped Rusch of a year of eligibility because of his participation in a tournament in his native Switzerland. He’s redshirting this season and will compete for the Wahoos as a senior in 2013-14.

The loss of Rusch means underclassmen dominate Virginia’s lineup this season. The only senior who plays regularly for the `Hoos is Mac McLaughlin.

“We’re just really young, and you can see it in our play,” Sargent said. “We’ve played really well at times, and then we’ve played poorly at times.”

To advance to an NCAA regional for the sixth consecutive year, Virginia needs to perform well in its two remaining tournaments: the Navy Spring Invitational, Saturday and Sunday in Annapolis, Md., and the ACC championships, April 26-28 in New London, N.C.

McCarthy understands the challenge facing the Cavaliers. “I’m also aware we have a really young team,” he said.

“It’s tough at the same time, and everyone always asks if I feel any added pressure with us having such a young team, and I don’t. I got a lot of experience last year watching [former Virginia star] Ben Kohles and how he dealt with pressure situations. I think learning from him, his experience, has really given me experience on how to handle pressure situations.”

This weekend’s tournament is at the U.S. Naval Golf Club, where McCarthy won two U.S. Junior qualifiers.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have pretty good success on this course,” he said. “I was lucky enough to play well both times I played there and in a way kind of dominated on that course. I felt really comfortable on it. The greens there are very similar to my home course that I play on.”

The ACC tournament was held in New London last year, too, and the Cavaliers, led by Rusch and McCarthy, placed second.

“That’s a course that I love,” McCarthy said, and he sees himself as a serious contender to succeed Rusch as ACC champion.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I see myself as a contender for every tournament, no matter what the circumstances are. I feel like any given week I can go out there and if I play my game, I think I have good enough stuff to be the best player that week.”

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