Journeys

‘I needed to get a lot better’: How Denny McCarthy finally broke through and became a PGA Tour constant

March 13, 2024
/content/dam/images/golfdigest/fullset/2024/2/McCarthy-Article.jpg

Photo by Josh Letchworth

Sometimes it would get to me: These guys who are my age, like Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, who I played against in junior golf, who I’d even beaten, were winning majors—and I was stuck fighting to keep my card each season. There were times I doubted myself. When I arrive at Augusta National for the first time this April, there will be no room for doubt.

My dad and uncle both played golf in college. My older brother, Ryan, also played, and our course, Argyle Country Club in Silver Spring, Md., had a lot of juniors. It’s easy to fall in love with the game when you’re spending summers with your friends and brother, playing closest-to-the-pin contests for a milkshake. I have three siblings, and we all played D-I sports in college—golf for Ryan and me, and lacrosse for my two sisters, Cristina and Michaela.

● ● ●

I played basketball through high school, but I’m 5-foot-9. That didn’t bode well for a long career in the sport. I wasn’t the biggest guy, but I was a great defender because my mentality was This guy is not going to get by me. That confident mind-set helped me become a great putter, and it is still the strongest part of my game. I am determined to make every putt, and I approach each one thinking I’m going to make it.

1928682536

Michael Reaves

In high school, I had a growth spurt between my freshman and sophomore years and went from hitting it 230 to 275 yards. I shot under par in a lot of matches. I qualified for the U.S. Amateur as a 16-year-old. I didn’t dream of being a PGA Tour player. Instead, I focused on consistently improving. I realized I could play in college.

● ● ●

I wanted to go to an academically strong school so that I would have a good degree if I didn’t keep improving as a golfer. I loved the University of Virginia. I encouraged our coach to make practice more competitive and play more games, like nine-hole wedge contests from inside 140 yards. It made the work fun and sharpened our focus.

My junior year, I got a lot better. I learned I have a tendency to overthink my swing. When I get too technical, I stop thinking about the shot I want to hit. Using my creative mind to draw a picture of the shot I want lets my body take over and make the necessary motions to hit it. I played well that year in 2014 and made it to the semifinals in the U.S. Am that summer.

● ● ●

After graduation, I stayed an amateur to play the Walker Cup. That fall, I made it to the Final Stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q school. It was at the Champion course at PGA National. I was right around the number to get status, and it was blowing 30 miles an hour. Down the stretch, guys in the top 10 were making doubles, triples and quads. My brother was on the bag and said, “Play these last holes like the champion you are.” I was calm and played the last four holes two under. I backdoored a top-10 and earned status. I replay those holes in my head to remind myself that when everything is on the line, I can get it done.

● ● ●

I played two seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour before earning my PGA Tour card. I went right into the fall season in 2017 and made one cut in five events. I needed to get a lot better. They hit it more consistently and went about their business better. On Sunday in Mexico, I was paired with Zach Johnson. We had barely made the cut, but he treated it like he was in the final group. He shot seven under. He was so into his round and routine. He didn’t let anything bother him. I remember thinking, That’s a true professional.

● ● ●

In the offseason, I worked on driving accuracy because the fairways are narrower on the PGA Tour than the Korn Ferry. I learned to not travel alone—it gets lonely. I either travel with my wife or a group of guys, including Harris English, J.T. Poston and Brendon Todd. We rent a house, and when we get back, we’re all trying to beat each other in a game of Yahtzee or Gin.

● ● ●

I was improving but stuck as a guy who was just trying to keep status. Talking to sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella helped. He uses key phrases that have stuck with me: Be patient. Stick to the process. Be totally unflappable. I play them in my head on the course when I feel things starting to go awry.

● ● ●

I had my breakthrough year in 2023. I almost won the Memorial. Losing in a playoff to Viktor Hovland hurt a lot, but I had fun. I love feeling the adrenaline and nerves—and trying to control them. I putted great that week using my basketball mentality: total confidence and a determination to make everything.

● ● ●

When I step onto the greens at Augusta National, I’m going to keep that same mentality. I can’t wait to get there and turn my golf brain on to figure out how I’m going to play the course. I’m going to study every green, feel the undulation with my feet and do everything I can to make a whole lot of putts. I don’t doubt myself anymore.

Written with Keely Levins

More from Golf Digest