On a hot June afternoon in the late 1980s, a reporter for a Raleigh television station called Steve Isley Jr. out to a fairway at Wake Forest Country Club to do a feature on that evening’s newscast.
Isley was the defending champion of North State Junior, the unofficial start of the junior golf summer round in North Carolina. Most of the best teenagers in the state gathered each year on the difficult course to compete over 54 holes. The elders hoped to attract the attention of the college coaches who were recruiting there.
The reporter and cameraman drove Isley to a spot about 120 yards from the green and asked him to take a shot. He is required to. The ball flew through the air, hit the flag and fell next to the cup. Then came the bad news. The tape did not run. Embarrassed, the crew asked Isley to meet again.
Isley dropped another ball, flushed another, and hit the flag again.
The journalists couldn’t believe what they had just seen. They shared their mistake and Isley’s amazing performance when the play aired that evening. The story spread over the summer, stretched and embellished as so often. But the truth outweighed any fiction. His father still has a dusty VHS tape as evidence.
Those sixty seconds or so revealed to the triangle what the crowd already knew. Stevie Isley was a cute swinger with a gentle putting punch that produced consistently low scores. Relaxed and humble, easy to play but eager to win, a fire of competition that burns brightly below the syrupy pace.
“I don’t think I’ve flung a flag since then,” said Isley, 50, last week in the BBQ area overlooking the Atlantic at Oak Island Country Club, where he’s been the head pro since 2010.
At the time, his immediate attention was on preparations for the upcoming fireworks display and the beach party. A busy golf course never rests in the heart of summer. But he would find himself a few hours later that afternoon to play a round of golf while preparing for senior golf’s biggest stage, the US Senior Open, which kicks off in Omaha, Neb on Thursday.
Isley, who turned 50 last August, earned his place in the 156-man field with a 68 on May 24 at Highland CC in Fayetteville. He made six birdies and two bogeys in the classic Donald Ross design to win medalists and take one of the two available places.
After hitting par on his final three holes, Isley Jr. worried that his total of 4 under would not be low enough to qualify. He wasn’t nervous when he came down the track. He had other things on his mind anyway.
“Whatever happened, I knew I had to go home and go back to work,” he said.
Isley’s second USGA national championship appearance comes 31 years after his first. He qualified for the US Amateur in 1990 in Cherry Hills outside of Denver. This week’s champion was Phil Mickelson. Just as the famous left-hander thought it was the first of many USGA championships in his career, no one expected three decades to pass before Isley battled for another national crown.
Born in Burlington, he immersed himself in golf as a child and grew up in a house next to the sixth hole on Shamrock Golf Course. Isley Jr. plucked crabgrass and plucked stones from the fairway in exchange for a free envelope full of golf balls or buckets of balls to blast them on the driving range.
He received an NC State scholarship, fired a 65 to help the Wolfpack get its only ACC championship in 1990, received All-ACC awards, and won an individual title during his career.
After college, Isley Jr. turned pro and earned status on the Nike (now Korn Ferry) tour. He participated in the proving ground from 1993 to 1995. After failing PGA Tour Qualifying School second level in 1995, Isley Jr. and his wife Tonya moved to the coast. He worked as an assistant at Oak Island before getting a job as a head pro at St. James Plantation.
He remained competitive in the Carolinas PGA section, winning twice the NC Open, the Carolinas Open, the SC Open and making his only appearance on the PGA Tour, the 2007 Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) Championship at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte.
When he turned 45, Isley Jr. turned his attention to senior golf opportunities. As a member of the section, he has annual access to the Senior PGA, another major championship for audiences over 50. A fourth place finish in a PGA Winter Series tournament in Florida last winter boosted his confidence and he held his own low pro at the Carolinas Senior Open in April and finished in the top 10 at the SC Open in May.
Conquering the Omaha CC requires your best. Over the years, Isley Jr. has played within himself, feeling comfortable about it, being conservative, and content with grinding pars in difficult places. Such a schedule should fit a US Senior Open, where the winning points are rarely double-digit below par.
He planned to play training rounds Monday through Wednesday with longtime friend Ray Franz, a professional at the Dataw Island Club in South Carolina.
His son Walker, who has just finished his first year on the UNCW golf team, is his caddy. His wife, parents and in-laws will be in the gallery. He also has full support from the members of Oak Island, who perhaps most look forward to the opportunity that lies ahead for their headmaster.
Regardless of how the week turns out, arriving in Nebraska with only a start time on Thursday is an accomplishment. There were 2,999 registrations at this year’s US Senior Open and Isley Jr. is one of 72 first-time entrants in the 156-man field.
The time window to be competitive in senior golf is small and closes quickly. Isley Jr. is reluctant to leave Oak Island or resume touring, but would love to compete against his peers on occasion. Isley Jr. recently played a casual round with Tommy Tolles, a PGA Tour veteran who lives in the mountains of NC, and left impressed with the clean contact Tolles made with every shot.
His goals for the week are simple. Have fun, keep it in the short grass, and maybe hit a shot that lands on the NBC Sports TV show. This time the tape will surely roll.