In his younger years, Ricky McDonald was a promising baseball player. Good enough to make his Little League All-Star team at age 11.
But that same summer he went with a friend to hit golf balls at a nearby driving range, “and the next day I quit the All-Star team,” recalled McDonald, a 2009 graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School. “And I haven’t played baseball since.”
From that moment, golf was his game. He kept playing and improving through high school, reaching the state tournament three times in four years and twice qualifying for the United States Amateur as a teenager.
He turned pro about four years ago, beginning what is often a long, difficult, frustrating and sometimes heartbreaking journey to reach the PGA Tour. He started out playing smaller tours, first on the West Coast and then on the East Coast, and this year he qualified for the PGA Tour Canada.
After missing the cut and then finishing back in the pack at his first two tournaments, he broke through in a big way at his third, placing second at the June 19-22 Syncrude Boreal Open in Fort McMurray, Alberta. His four-round score of 17-under-par 271 earned him $16,200.
“I started out slow with a (first-round) 72, but in the second round I had a 64,” said the 23-year-old McDonald, speaking by telephone from his home in Pawleys Island, S.C. “I kind of gained confidence with that round. It was a pretty flawless round of golf and it carried over (to the rest of the tournament).”
Throughout the week, he said, “it wasn’t that I did anything spectacular. I just played solid and played my game.”
Many golf pros, and certainly most on the PGA Tour, prepared themselves for the pro game by playing in elite college programs. McDonald spent a year at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, Calif., where he was a redshirt member of the golf team, “but I don’t think I was mature enough at that time in my life to be really focused on school,” he said, explaining why he dropped out after one year to turn pro.
“Playing college golf and getting the experience of traveling and playing can be absolutely priceless. But I also think it depends on the person. Everybody’s different, and the way I did it has worked for me.”
“He thought the path to go was the college route because that’s kind of the traditional way,” said his mother Cindy Sjoblom of Edmonds. “But I could see my son was losing his confidence in school. How do you make somebody be a student when his heart really isn’t in it? I know my son and I thought, ‘This isn’t going to work.’”
By turning pro at 20, McDonald became one of the youngest players in every tournament. “Nobody knew who I was,” he said. “So when I did well it was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ … Not having all the eyes on me at that point in my career actually helped because there was no pressure on me. I was just some 20-year-old guy trying to play golf.”
He is an average pro off the tee, averaging about 285 yards with his driver. But whatever he gives up to the big hitters in distance, he makes up for with accuracy. “I’ve always been a pretty good ball striker,” he said. “I very rarely make mistakes. I don’t hit the ball too wayward.”
And the best part of his game, he added, “is my wedges. I’m really good from about 120 (yards) and in.”
Likewise, he is confident with his putter, “which is something I’ve put a lot of time in on this year. I’ve worked on (putting) speed and lines and reading the greens. It’s something I’ve really worked hard to get better at,” he said.
Also significant, he moved to South Carolina two years ago to be around great golfers and great golf courses. He lives about 30 miles south of Myrtle Beach, which he calls “the golf capital of the world. … There are a lot of places to play out here, so I’m kind of using this as my hub for golf.”
McDonald has some major goals in mind in the remaining months of this season. If he finishes among the tour money leaders he could get exempt status in Canada again next year. But he would also have a good chance to play next season in the United States on the Web.com Tour, which is the primary path to the PGA Tour.
More immediate, the top three money winners on the PGA Tour Canada through the third week of July qualify for the RBC Canadian Open, a regular stop on the 2014 PGA Tour. That tournament is July 24-27 at the Royal Montreal Golf Club.
Having the chance to compete against PGA Tour players in a few weeks “would be absolutely huge,” McDonald said. “To be able to play with all the guys I’ve looked up to over the years and all the guys I’ve followed week in and week out, that would be such an experience for me.
“It would definitely be the biggest tournament of my life,” he said.