BY MIKE FIELDS
Cooper Musselman got the big news back in April while having lunch with his dad, Chester, and Brooks Downing, executive director of the Barbasol Championship.
Downing told Musselman, who was finishing up his final season playing golf for the University of Kentucky, that he was getting an exemption to compete in the PGA TOUR event that was coming to Champions at Keene Trace in July.
“I almost couldn’t believe it,” Musselman recalled. “I was so excited.”
But he had to mask his excitement for 24 hours because UK teammate Tyler “Chip” McDaniel, was going to be told the next day that he also was getting a spot in the Barbasol Championship field.
So after lunch Musselman went to practice with a poker face and sealed lips.
“It was hard to keep it a secret,” he said. “In the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘Chip, you’ll find out tomorrow.’”
The next afternoon UK Coach Brian Craig and McDaniel met with Downing at his office at Champions at Keene Trace.
“I didn’t know what it was about, but I was hopeful,” McDaniel said. “Brooks was doing some small talk for a few minutes, then he said, ‘I need your help. You come from an area that loves Kentucky and I think you could help out with some ticket sales. And obviously you’re a hometown kid playing for UK . . . and we want to give you an exemption.’”
What does that mean to the Clay County native?
“It just means the world,” McDaniel said at the Barbasol Championship media day on Monday. “I grew up a Kentucky fan, and to open up in a town I love, in an area I love, in front of the people I love, it just means the world.”
Musselman feels the same way.
“It’s truly unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to start my career. I’m truly blessed.”
McDaniel and Musselman capped standout college careers by leading UK to its 10th appearance in the NCAA Championships a couple weeks ago.
Craig is delighted they’re now getting the ultimate graduation gift.
“When you have aspirations like these guys, and you’ve worked at it all day, every day since you were 10 years old, and you get the chance to start in a PGA TOUR event right out of college, in your home state, on a course you’ve played a lot and a course you love, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“It’s just an awesome, awesome deal, and I couldn’t be happier for them.”
McDaniel, who owns a Junior PGA Championship (2013) and a couple Kentucky State Amateur titles (2013, ’17), can’t believe his college career is over.
“It went by too fast,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.
“The biggest thing I improved on with my game was 100 yards in, and chipping and putting. And I grew as a person, learning to control a little bit of a temper, and being grateful for people, and really just learning how to talk to people.”
Musselman, who played in high school for St. Xavier, comes from a family of golfers. His dad Chester also played for UK, as did his grandfather Tom Musselman Sr., and Tom Musselman Jr. Bill Musselman, his great uncle, was one of the best amateur players in state history.
But Cooper said he still had a lot to learn in college.
“Everything got better at UK. My ball-striking has always been my strength, but it’s gotten even better. And my short game has gotten tremendously better.
“And I’ve gotten better from a maturity standpoint. How to handle yourself on the golf course, getting that experience in big moments so you know how your body is going to feel, how you might hit it five yards further because your adrenaline is going.”
(Musselman, the reigning Kentucky Open champ, got his adrenaline going during Monday’s media day when he had a hole-in-one on the par-3 second hole.)
Musselman and McDaniel both said they’ll try to be loose and have fun when they tee it up in the Barbasol Championship.
Craig thinks it will be the first step into a bright future for both players.
“There’s no doubt both of these guys have everything it takes to play on the PGA TOUR and have long careers,” he said. “Now is that going to happen? I don’t have a crystal ball. But there’s no doubt, not even a remote doubt, that they’ve got the game, they’ve got the desire, they’ve got the guts, and they’re committed to it.”
Come the week of July 16, Chip McDaniel and Cooper Musselman will be among the crowd favorites at Champions at Keene Trace, playing in a PGA TOUR event in the middle of Big Blue Nation, and soaking up the experience of a lifetime.
“It’s going to be awesome,” McDaniel said.