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Globe West Sports

Hopkinton golf whiz works on mind control

McCarron has tools for promising future

Hopkinton High senior Jace McCarron demonstrates the form that inspires visions of a pro career, but coach Dick Bliss (inset, at rear) says he needs to sharpen his mental approach. Hopkinton High senior Jace McCarron demonstrates the form that inspires visions of a pro career, but coach Dick Bliss (inset, at rear) says he needs to sharpen his mental approach.
(Photos By Jon Mahoney for The Boston Globe)
By Jason Mastrodonato
Globe Correspondent / October 2, 2011

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Dick Bliss was almost giddy watching Jace McCarron warm up for a practice session with the Hopkinton High School golf team last week.

Bliss has seen a lot in 32 years as a coach, including the maturation of Keegan Bradley from a Hopkinton High senior in 2004 to this summer’s PGA Championship winner.

And Bliss can not help but compare the raw ability of Bradley to that of the 17-year-old McCarron.

“When he has a free mind and he’s swinging good and things are going well, he can shoot lights-out,’’ Bliss said. “Jace is that good of a player.’’

McCarron was a late arrival for practice at Hopkinton Country Club, delayed by a trip to the orthodontist to tighten his braces. He quickly changed into his team shirt, grabbed his golf bag, and walked down to the practice range.

“Take a few shots with the 7-iron,’’ Bliss said. “I want to see how it looks.’’

McCarron pulled out his club, dumped over the bucket of range balls and separated one from the pile. Without stretching, he fired his first warm-up shot - a beauty, with just enough hook to curl past the deepest flag on the range.

The next three or four shots looked nearly identical.

“That’s perfect,’’ Bliss said. “Couldn’t be any better. Now pick a flag and aim for it. Have a little fun with this.’’

“Sure, the blue one on the right,’’ the senior said.

With his 6-foot, 138-pound frame, McCarron reared back and ever-so-smoothly swung his club for the sixth time, this one even prettier than the rest. His swing is gentle, yet mechanically sound, and he is able to repeat it over and over; he was tutored in the game by his grandfather, John Smith.

In McCarron’s follow-through, the club wraps over his left shoulder, with his right foot arched and turned toward the target, and his head looking straight forward; he is still holding the pose when the ball lands just feet from the pin.

“Wow,’’ marveled the coach. “Stop hitting them, you don’t need to hit anymore.’’

Bliss then turned, and said, “He’s hitting as good as he ever has right now. He’s got his swing back. That’s all you need off the tee at almost every course’’ used for Tri-Valley League competitions, he said. “Now if only we can get him to do that consistently.’’

McCarron put the 7-iron back in his bag and began to talk about his streaky style of play, the kind that has him carrying a 1.9 handicap when he’s capable of much better.

“You see this thing here?’’ the coach said, pointing to McCarron’s head. “It’s about 12 inches wide maybe. This is where it gets in the way sometimes.’’

“Yeah. I’m a big feel player, so that happens to me,’’ countered McCarron.

For a while, when McCarron would hit a bad shot or card an eight on a hole, everyone on the course knew about it. His body language was awful, and Bliss had seen enough.

“Jace is such a perfectionist,’’ said Bliss of his three-year captain. “He works so hard at it - he does practice as hard as those guys,’’ Bliss said, recalling Keegan and Jon Curran, a 2005 Hopkinton High grad who is also playing professional golf. “But when he’s on the golf course, I’ll keep reminding him, ‘You can’t be that visible with your body language. You’re showing your opponents and even the people you’re playing with.’ ’’

But a triple bogey is more than just a number to McCarron. It’s what a triple bogey means compared with his expectations. And it’s putrid.

“If I could just lower the bar, I’d put a lot less pressure on myself,’’ he said.

This summer, McCarron approached Adam Naylor, a sports psychology coach at the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center. He wanted to work on his mental approach after sharpening his physical skills last spring at the Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy in Florida, where he was putting up scores that would attract the attention of Division 1 college coaches, perhaps even Frank Darby, who coached Bradley at St. John’s University.

“So you made an eight, you can’t try to make two on the next hole,’’ Bliss said, citing one of his recurring messages for McCarron. “And sometimes he has a hard time with that. I went and talked with Coach Darby and he said, ‘I’m looking at these scores and I’m seeing 69 down in Florida and then I’m seeing 85.’ And I said, ‘I think you know about mental toughness.’ ’’

Reached by phone last week, Naylor said, “It’s not about just being positive, it’s about perceiving situations most positively.

“One day I was walking with Gary Gilchrist and one of his players got a bogey. And the player was mad. But Gary said that was good; the target was bogey or par on this hole. So it’s a perspective thing.’’

Competing in the Florida Open in July, McCarron was close to the leader after the first round. “Then expectations got to me,’’ he said.

“Usually what happens to me,’’ McCarron said, “is I’ll be close to the lead the first day. I wasn’t thinking about winning, I wasn’t thinking about anything - just playing golf. And then my goals and everything changed, and once I got there, I wanted to win.’’

McCarron has talked to Bradley several times since his major title victory in August, and can see himself on the PGA Tour some day. But his expectations first need to be controlled. Bradley was the best at that, according to Bliss, and even he continues to set the bar high.

“There’s always something more you can do in sports,’’ Bradley said on a visit to Fenway Park last month. Even if you’re Tiger Woods, he said, “and you’re winning every week, there’s still more tournaments to win. It’s a never-ending process.’’

McCarron will have the chance to find out a lot about himself over the next two months.

He wants to win a state title at the end of the month. First, though, there are pair of prestigious amateur tourneys, one at the famed Bethpage course in New York, and the other in Florida, the St. Augustine Open.

As McCarron was finishing up his practice round, Bliss walked to his car and handed a magazine article to McCarron’s 9-year-old brother, Gavin, to give to McCarron later. The story is about Tiger Woods seeing a sports psychologist.

It’s a familiar topic for McCarron’s mentor at the BU Athletic Enhancement Center.

“You have a strength coach for your body, you’d be a fool not to take care of your mind, right?’’ Naylor said. “Jace wasn’t playing badly, he was inconsistent, and that you can work on.

“I see a ton of potential with him - whatever that means. If he remains consistent, he’ll play golf at a really good college. And if he enjoys the competition and does well, he’ll be able to go out there and play on the mini tours and be able to make some headway. He can really go anywhere at this point,’’ Naylor said.

“But what makes Jace different is he’s willing to learn. And many guys aren’t.’’

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@yahoo.com.